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House committee holds ‘Lauren’s Law’ — named for slain University of Utah student — after pushback from gun groups

File - In this Nov. 10, 2018 file photo, an image of University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot on campus is projected on the video board before the start of an NCAA college football game between Oregon and Utah Saturday in Salt Lake City. An investigation into missed warning signs before the death of a University of Utah student shot by a man she briefly dated shows campus police are overtaxed and need more training in handling domestic violence cases, authorities said Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. The probe also found that friends of student Lauren McCluskey had reported to residence-hall officials that her then-boyfriend Melvin Rowland was controlling and wanted to get her a gun nearly a month before her death.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A bill named in memory of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey is stuck in a House committee, held up by lawmakers wary of increasing civil liability for people who loan out their guns.

The “Lauren’s Law” legislation sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard would open the way for lawsuits against individuals whose borrowed firearms are used in a felony. He introduced the proposal after McCluskey was killed in October by a convicted felon who shot her using a borrowed gun.

“This bill does nothing to infringe on a person’s right to bear or carry any gun, but what it does is it encourages smart, responsible gun ownership,” Stoddard, D-Sandy, told his colleagues Wednesday.

But legislators on the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee opted to hold the bill for discussion after hearing from gun advocates who said law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be culpable for the actions of criminals.

Brian Judy, a National Rifle Association lobbyist, said adding liability in these cases would put Utah on a “slippery slope.”

“This bill will set up firearm owners to be targets of litigation in an already overly-litigious society,” he testified.

The measure was on Wednesday’s agenda with several other gun-safety bills. Two of the proposals — one on safety education and proper gun storage and another on voluntary surrender of firearms — were supported by gun advocates and moved out of the committee with a favorable recommendation.

Gun groups did object to the two Democrat-sponsored pieces of legislation: Stoddard’s HB190 and Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s bill to create criminal penalties against people who leave their guns unsecured, giving a minor or restricted person access to the firearm. The proposed penalties would only apply if someone is then harmed by the firearm.

While the committee voted to table Weight’s proposal outright, members signaled willingness to talk about Stoddard’s bill, and Stoddard said he was optimistic about finding consensus language.

Physicians, a Utah PTA representative and a lobbyist with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City pressed legislators to enact safety reforms, some sharing stories of tragic accidents that had killed or injured children and teenagers.

Charles Pruitt, past president of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he once treated a young girl whose brother accidentally shot her in the chest while handling his grandmother’s firearm.

“She came to my emergency room, and despite our best efforts at resuscitation, she died on my table, on my watch,” Pruitt said, imploring lawmakers to move Weight’s bill, HB87, forward.

Reps. Lee Perry and Mike Schultz, both committee members, said they've been flooded with messages on the proposals by Stoddard and Weight, almost all of them in opposition.

Madalena McNeil, lead adviser for March of Our Lives Utah, attributed the volume of correspondence to a coordinated effort by the Utah Shooting Sports Council.

A Tuesday action alert sent out by the council told supporters that Stoddard's bill would open gun owners to "ruinous civil suits."

"To link this bill to the U of U student murdered by an inadequately monitored parolee is an opportunistic shifting of blame from law enforcement failures, and just wrong," the sports council's email said, while encouraging people to call and write House lawmakers.

Stoddard said he's been in touch with McCluskey's family about the legislation and plans to speak with her relatives Friday about the committee's decision to hold the bill.

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