A year after Parkland shooting, stand-your-ground bill moves forward in Utah Legislature while gun control measures wait for hearing

Last year’s mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., unleashed calls for gun reform that swept the nation, and nearly 12 months after the attack, a number of gun bills are marching forward in the Utah Legislature.

Not Rep. Stephen Handy’s proposed “red flag” law to create a class of court orders for disarming individuals in crisis. And not Rep. Steve Eliason’s legislation on safe storage of firearms.

At this point, both of those measures are sitting in the House Rules Committee, a place sometimes regarded as a holding cell for legislation.

Yet a bill that would strengthen Utah’s stand-your-ground law and a resolution emphasizing enforcement of existing gun laws are moving through the Legislature at a swift clip.

Utah Rep. Timothy Hawkes, who chairs the House Rules Committee, said he can’t say for sure when Eliason’s or Handy’s bills might see the light of day.

“We have a lot of gun bills this year on all different sides, so when we have that, we’re always concerned that ... do they step on each other? How do they interact with each other?” Hawkes, R-Centerville, said. “And so, sometimes, it takes us some time to just figure out what order to release those, when to release those.”

Eliason says he hopes it’s soon.

His proposal, aimed at firearm safety and suicide prevention, won unanimous support from an interim committee and was among the first House bills made public this session but hasn’t budged out of the Rules Committee.

“I’m very anxious for my bill to get out of rules,” said Eliason, R-Sandy, whose bill would promote safety education and distribution of trigger locks and biometric safes. “It’s probably the only bill that has the word ‘firearms’ in it that I think we can get a unanimous vote on.”

Already heading to the House floor is a measure proffered by Rep. Cory Maloy dealing with the state’s stand-your-ground law. HB114, which cleared committee Tuesday, makes it explicit that a person’s failure to retreat during an attack “is not a relevant factor in determining whether the individual ... acted reasonably." This clarification, the Lehi Republican said, is meant to prevent the prosecution of people who acted in self-defense.

A representative from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America testified that the measure effectively “ties the hands of judges and juries” and would pose a risk to Utah communities.

Another proposal already out of committee is a resolution affirming that the state’s existing laws “provide sufficient tools for protecting its citizens from the threat of fatal violence.” Maloy said the resolution, HJR7, which has support from nearly 30 co-sponsors, lays out the argument that the state should enforce existing laws regulating and restricting firearm use in many cases.

Ermiya Fanaeian, who co-founded March for Our Lives Utah, said the resolution’s progress is worrisome, but she remains optimistic that lawmakers will make meaningful reforms to the state’s gun laws this session.

“We’ve seen so many people who are passionate, who are ready, who are willing to put up that fight. And I know that with the passion of Utahns, we can get to the results we’ve been looking for,” she said.

She noted that some gun safety bills are moving forward, such as Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s proposal making it a criminal offense to leave a firearm easily accessible to a child.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said he wouldn’t read too much into the forward motion of Maloy’s bills compared with the status of proposals sponsored by Handy and Eliason.

However, he does hope the Legislature shares the sentiments laid out in Maloy's resolution.

“Before they start ... trampling on 2nd, 4th and 5th amendment rights, we’d like to see them try their hand at utilizing their existing ability to control some of these criminals,” Aposhian said.

Handy, R-Layton, openly admits that his red flag bill will be a tough sell to his colleagues. The legislation would allow judges to temporarily remove guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, and opponents have labeled it a “gun confiscation” measure.

But Handy said he’s not concerned that the proposal hasn’t emerged from the Rules Committee, explaining that he requested that it be held so he can put some finishing touches on it.

The idea polls well among Utah voters, with about 68 percent of respondents in a recent survey saying they supported some version of it. And a safety commission — formed last year in the wake of the Parkland shooting — strongly recommended a red flag law of the sort Handy is proposing.

The group, the Utah Safe Schools Commission, also advised taking a tougher line on gun storage by making it a possible misdemeanor to keep unsecured firearms where youth could access them. Allocating more money for gun safes and increasing public awareness of proper gun storage were also ideas supported by the commission. A majority of the panel advocated for universal background checks and waiting periods to obtain a firearm.

Handy, Eliason and Weight have sponsored legislation that mirror some of these recommendations, as has House Minority Leader Brian King, who is advancing a universal background check proposal.

Thursday will mark one year since the Parkland shooting, and Handy said he wishes the state had taken more action in the intervening months.

“I think that we’ve done a lot of talking,” he said.

Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this article