More than two-thirds of Utah voters support the idea of letting courts strip firearms from a person in crisis, a new poll shows, but the concept might be a tougher sell in the Legislature.
Debate over extreme-risk protective orders — used to temporarily remove guns from those who are a danger to themselves or others — comes on the heels of a study showing suicides accounted for 85 percent of the state’s firearm deaths from 2006 to 2015. It’s also part of a national wave of interest in so-called red flag laws, which have passed in a number of states since last year’s mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Rep. Stephen Handy, who’s trying to get a version passed in Utah this session, called the new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll numbers a “pleasant surprise,” with 68 percent of those surveyed saying they were fully or somewhat behind a red flag law and 26 percent opposed. But public popularity doesn’t equal legislative success.
"I don't know how much it will really help legislators," Handy, R-Layton, said. "I wish they would take a look at it."
As written, Handy’s bill would empower family members, roommates or police officers to petition the court to remove guns from individuals who are a danger or have made threats to harm themselves or others.
After considering the evidence, the court could then issue an emergency order lasting up to 20 days and schedule a hearing within 14 days so the gun owner could present his or her case. The judge at the hearing could then restrict someone from possessing firearms for up to a year.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, argues the proposal would violate people’s rights to due process, since the court would be able to issue a temporary order before hearing from the gun owner. He chalked up the poll results to a lack of knowledge about what red flag laws actually entail.
"Basically, it's nothing more than a gun confiscation bill," he said.
Moreover, simply taking away a person’s firearms doesn’t resolve a crisis, he said, and guns are far from the only way of causing harm.
But Carrie Butler, policy director for Action Utah, says there’s a good reason that the bill targets guns for removal.
Firearms are a highly lethal method of self-harm, with death resulting in about nine of every 10 Utah suicide attempts involving a gun, according to an October report by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“If we can put some time and some distance temporarily between the person and the most lethal means, then we could potentially save that person’s life,” said Butler, whose organization advocates on health policy and is supporting Handy’s bill from a public health standpoint.
Some members of the law enforcement community have had reservations about the red flag bill, anticipating it might precipitate violent standoffs between unstable individuals and police officers responsible for seizing firearms, Butler said. That’s why the bill now specifies that officers can exercise their discretion by standing down if the situation seems too volatile, she said.
Andrea White, a Provo resident polled for the survey, said she would in theory support letting the courts issue extreme-risk protective orders, but a lot depends on the specifics of a proposal. While she’s not a gun owner, her father is, and she said she’s sympathetic to the potential due process issues that are wrapped up in red flag bills.
“His whole idea behind having [a gun] is so in case of an emergency ... he is prepared. So if somebody else is to attack, he could defend our family,” said White, 33. “If there is no due process, he’s unable to defend himself from a claim of some person saying he’s unstable.”
Butler and Handy say the bill, HB209, addresses this concern by making it a third-degree felony to submit false information when obtaining an extreme-risk protective order.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said he’s not surprised by the poll numbers showing broad support for a red flag bill, even in a state where a gun is in nearly half the households.
“Utahns are not viewing this as a restriction on their guns," he said. “They’re viewing this as something to protect individuals and the public.”
The new poll was conducted between Jan. 15 and 24, questioning 604 registered voters statewide, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Positive sentiment for the idea spanned party affiliation, gender and age, and Perry predicted this consistency across all demographics would force the Legislature to pay some attention to Handy’s proposal.
Handy offered up a similar bill near the end of the 2018 session, but it never passed out of the House.
This session, expense could be a sticking point for the measure, which hasn’t yet been assigned a committee. While the fiscal note hasn’t been released publicly, Handy said he’s seen a copy that estimates the court and training costs would total “several hundred thousand dollars a year.”