A House Democrat made one final attempt Monday to pass “Lauren’s Law,” a bill designed to prevent people from loaning out their guns negligently.
But the legislation, named in memory of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, failed to gain traction in its second committee hearing of the session as lawmakers concluded it could lead to harsh punishments for well-intentioned firearm owners.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, the sponsor of HB190, said he’ll be back next year with the legislation to make it easier for crime victims and their families to sue the owner of a firearm used in violent felonies such as a murder, rape or aggravated assault. Gun owners are duty-bound to exercise extreme caution when letting someone borrow a firearm, he said.
“At some point, we need to own up and be responsible,” Stoddard, a Sandy Democrat who has a concealed carry permit, told the House Judiciary Committee. “At some point, we’re going to have to move past education and into action.”
Stoddard titled the bill "Lauren's Law" because McCluskey's shooter, a convicted felon barred from owning a firearm, used a borrowed gun in the Oct. 22 slaying.
The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee heard the bill several weeks ago and decided to put it on hold amid concerns about how it might penalize gun owners. Stoddard says he asked the judiciary committee to review the proposal in a final “Hail Mary” effort to keep the bill alive this session.
HB190 contained several exemptions meant to protect innocent gun owners from a lawsuit; for instance, they wouldn’t be to blame if their firearm was stolen and they reported the theft to police or if the gun was fired in self-defense.
Safety advocates have praised the bill as a creative way to prevent criminals from borrowing firearms to get around laws restricting them from buying a gun. Even though the criminal might be willing to flout the rules, the law-abiding gun owner probably wouldn’t be, said Nancy Halden with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.
"By imposing strict liability, Lauren's Law ensures that law-abiding citizens will be very careful about who they give their gun to and the public will be safer as a result," Halden said.
The proposed law only focuses on civil suits, she added, and would not add any criminal liability for loaning out a firearm.
But gun advocates said the bill would "demonize" owners of firearms by saddling them with civil liability for crimes they didn't commit.
"Responsibility for the criminal misuse of firearms needs to be placed squarely on the backs of those committing the crime," Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said.
Rep. Lowry Snow said he could envision supporting the bill, in concept, but he’s not comfortable with the legislation as written, and there’s no time left in the session to make adjustments. During the hearing, he expressed concern that attorneys would use the new “strict liability” standard to sue gun owners who weren’t directly responsible for loaning a firearm to a criminal.
“Lawyers will use this to attach liability wherever they can find it,” the St. George Republican, an attorney, said.
The committee majority shot down a Democratic effort to move Stoddard’s bill to the floor and then voted to hold the legislation.