Bill on universal background checks for firearms sales to get another shot in the Utah Legislature

Utah Rep. Brian King hopes 2020 is his year.

After unsuccessfully running a bill during the 2019 legislative session that would require universal background checks for most gun sales in Utah, the Salt Lake City Democrat brought together a group of gun safety advocates Tuesday on Capitol Hill to announce his intention to run the legislation again in the upcoming session.

“I really believe this is not a question of if this kind of bill passes, it’s only a question of when,” he said. “And it’s only a question of how many lives we’re going to lose between now and then because we don’t have these kinds of laws.”

King’s draft bill, which has not yet been publicly released, would require a background check as a prerequisite for nearly all firearm transfers, including between those who don’t have a federal license to sell firearms.

Unlicensed sellers would be required to use a licensed firearm dealer to perform a background check, and a transfer would be considered unlawful if the attempted purchaser was found to be prohibited from possessing a firearm under state or federal law. A first violation of the statute would be a class A misdemeanor, carrying a possible jail sentence of up to one year, while subsequent offenses would be considered felonies.

The bill would not affect transfers between family members, by or between federal firearms licensees, by or to law enforcement or other groups acting within the scope of their employment, King said.

“It’s reasonable in carving out exceptions to this rule in a way that, again, does not unduly infringe on legitimate activities,” he said.

King’s bill on universal background checks didn’t get a hearing last year, despite mounting public pressure nationwide and locally for gun reform efforts following a spate of mass shootings in 2018. But he said Tuesday that he’s hopeful this bill will receive its chance for debate among lawmakers in the 2020 session.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants march from West High School to the state Capitol during the March for Our Lives SLC Saturday, March 24, 2018. The student-led March for Our Lives SLC got underway about 11:30 a.m. with what police estimated were 8,000 participants walking from Salt Lake City’s West High School to the front steps of the state Capitol.

“I’ve had communications with the speaker about this and some of the other leaders and House Republican caucus and I think they have indicated they are going to take a hard look at it,” he said. “They haven’t told me that they’re going to resist it or oppose it. That’s of course far different from supporting it, so we’ll have to see.”

Kait Hinckley, a volunteer with the Utah branch of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, urged the Legislature to take action on the issue next year, arguing that gun violence is an issue that transcends political affiliation.

“We know that this is a public health crisis that demands urgent action to save lives," she said. "That is why it is essential that lawmakers take the kind of meaningful action that people across the state are demanding. They can do just that by passing Representative King’s bill to enact background checks on all gun sales. Lives are on the line and the time to act is now.”

A Harvard University study released last year showed suicides accounted for 85% of Utah’s 2,983 firearm fatalities from 2006 to 2015. Domestic violence also accounts for a number of gun deaths in the state, said Ed Rutan, a member of the board of directors of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.

Rutan, a former Salt Lake City attorney, pointed Tuesday to past opinion polls that have shown wide support among Utahns for background checks as a reason for lawmakers to support King’s bill. A September UtahPolicy.com poll, for example, found 88% of Utahns want the state to require background checks on all gun sales, while just 8% said they would oppose such a measure.

“The vast majority of gun owners in Utah support universal background checks,” Rutan said during the news conference Tuesday. “And that’s not surprising. Responsible gun owners don’t want guns falling into the wrong hands any more than I do. The problem is not gun owners. The problem is the gun lobby.”

On Monday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced a policy change that will require anyone attempting to buy a firearm at a gun show in county-owned facilities to undergo a federal background check starting next year in an attempt to close what’s commonly called the “gun show loophole.”

Wilson’s pronouncement was greeted with frustration by some Utah gun lobbyists, who raised questions not only about the mayor’s measure but also about whether she has the legal ability to implement such restrictions.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, and 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. And it’s possible the state could work to preempt Wilson’s move during this legislative session.

King said he was supportive of Wilson’s efforts, which he called a “step in the right direction," but said his legislation is needed to achieve broader change.

"This bill is more comprehensive in a number of ways because it reaches more transactions,” he said. “And, of course, if passed in state law, [it] would apply to all counties in the state as opposed to Salt Lake County.”