Salt Lake County’s mayor forces background checks on private gun show sales

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson issues a rule that gun shows in county-owned facilities must require background checks for private gun sales.

Anyone who attempts to buy a firearm at a gun show held in Salt Lake County’s Mountain America Expo Center will be required to undergo a federal background check starting next month.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson says her effort to close what’s commonly known as the gun show “loophole” is a common-sense response to concerns about gun violence throughout the country. Before this switch, sales between two private parties didn’t require a background check.

“I support the rights of lawful gun owners, but the risk of a private transaction resulting in the sale of a firearm to someone with a violent criminal record or history of domestic abuse is a risk we cannot accept in Salt Lake County,” she said at a news conference announcing the policy change Monday. “We can all agree that responsible gun ownership should include responsible buying and selling as well.”

The new rule applies to all county-owned facilities, but gun shows are only regularly held at the expo center in Sandy.

Wilson’s pronouncement was greeted with frustration by Utah gun lobbyist Clark Aposhian, who attended the mayor’s news conference and afterward raised questions not only about the mayor’s measure but also about whether she has the legal ability to implement such restrictions.

“The state Legislatures, not individual counties or municipalities, are able to set gun laws,” said Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. “That’s the way it is in the vast majority of the United States. Forty-two states have preemption on gun laws so that as you pass from one city or county to another, you don’t have a patchwork” of rules.

He and another gun rights advocate, Jeremy Roberts, have contacted the Utah attorney general’s office, state legislators and the state auditor to look into whether the county is violating the law.

Utah code prohibits cities and counties from imposing any regulations on the ownership, possession, purchase, transfer or transport of a gun. And, in 2006, the state Supreme Court used that law to strike down an attempt by the University of Utah to ban guns on campus.

Wilson said Monday that the policy change is within the purview of the county, which “as the owner and operator of facilities, sets contracts and determines which shows we are to host within the walls of our facility,” and the county’s legal counsel has signed off on the measure.

“If I contacted all members of the Legislature to ask their opinion on things, I probably wouldn’t do a lot,” she said when asked if she was worried about legislative preemption.

SMG, the county contractor that runs the expo center and two other facilities, has previously imposed without incident other restrictions on gun shows, including prohibitions on magazines inside firearms and on patrons loading and unloading firearms inside the venue, according to the mayor’s office.

The new rule will affect two companies that each put on about four gun shows a year in the expo center, according to Dan Hayes, general manager of SMG. Under the arrangement, the contractor will hire a federally licensed dealer to conduct the background checks for private sales.

Aposhian said he sees the new rules as a “solution to a problem we don’t have,” noting that the largest percentage of gun deaths in the state are suicides and that the mayor “couldn’t find any examples — not even one example — of a firearm being purchased at a private transaction at a gun show that has resulted in a crime.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah gun rights advocate Clark Aposhian, one of only a handful of Americans who are legally allowed to keep their bump stock, a shooting accessory that alters semi-automatic rifles to fire in quick bursts like a machine gun, demonstrates how it works on an AKM-47 at a gun range in Murray, UT, on Thursday, April 4, 2019. He is challenging the bump stock ban in court, and an appeals court has allowed him to keep his bump stock until his case is resolved in court.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican who is running for governor, similarly worried that the measure was “politically motivated” and not rooted in data, which shows private sales account for a small portion of the firearms used in crimes.

“My overall concern is that a single elected official can unilaterally make decisions that impact constitutionally protected rights,” she said in a written statement. “If a county mayor can make this decision, can he/she also limit the types of booths at trade shows, if they don’t fit within certain political views? There needs to be more discussion around the process for these decisions.”

Even with this rule, it’s possible for a purchaser to walk out of a county-owned convention center and conduct the same transaction without a background check.

Wilson recognized the limitations of the regulations Monday and acknowledged they weren’t prompted by any particular incident. But she said the background check requirement is meant to be a “preventative measure.”

“I’m not naive enough to think this solves our nation’s challenge, whether it be in a home or a mass shooting,” she said. “But I think this is a step that can be taken by the Salt Lake County mayor and therefore I’ve stepped up to make this operational change.”

Past opinion polls have shown wide support among Utahns for background checks. A January 2016 UtahPolicy.com survey found 76% of Utahns were in favor of legislation expanding background checks on gun sales to purchases made over the internet or at gun shows.

County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, a Democrat, cited those numbers and said that the county has “long been committed” to reducing gun violence, pointing to a county program that provides gun owners with a free gun lock at county libraries and other measures.

She hopes this policy change shows "that common-sense gun reform is something that can happen when we get to the table and we talk through solutions. It seems like it’s an opportunity to show there are a lot of places where progress can be made on an issue in meaningful ways.”

Rob Templeton, vice president of Crossroads of the West, one of two major companies that conducts gun shows in Salt Lake County, said Monday that he was not “thrilled” about the changes, which he called “strange” and “unique” among the other venues the company works with to put on a total of 60 shows each year across four states.

“No other county, no other state, no other venue” has done something similar, he said.

Still, Templeton said that the company would work to comply with the new rules before its next show, which is scheduled at the expo center on Feb. 22 and 23.

“We’re working through the details right now with the county to figure out how, if it’s going to be implemented, how they’re going to do it,” he said.

Aposhian has said the organizers had no choice but to comply if they want to continue holding shows at the expo center. The next Rocky Mountain Gun Show is scheduled to take place Jan. 11.