Popular ‘red flag’ gun law makes little progress at the Utah Legislature

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) David Page, Membership lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, says a few words at a news conference against gun violence at The Impact Hub, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

Editor’s note • This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Thirty-two years ago, Mary Ann Thompson tried everything she could think of to remove the shotguns from her brother’s home in Roy after discovering a half-written suicide note on his kitchen counter.

She turned to emergency rooms and law enforcement for help but to no avail; they didn’t have legal authority to take away her brother’s guns and concluded that he wasn’t a threat to himself or anyone else, so he couldn’t be committed. Running into walls in Utah, Thompson decided she’d arrange for her brother to move in with her for a while. She had to fly home to Nebraska to care for a sick child, Thompson told her brother, but she’d return for him in a couple of days.

"And 23 hours later, he was dead," Thompson said, her voice quavering, as she addressed a room full of gun safety advocates Monday.

This year, Thompson, a volunteer leader with Utah Moms Demand Action, will be pushing for the passage of a bill she believes might have made a difference — “red flag” legislation that would enable judges to temporarily strip firearms from a person in crisis. But any hope of building momentum for the measure appears to be waning just days into the legislative session. The bill’s sponsor says he’s likely to abandon the proposal.

“I’m counting noses, and I don’t see the votes,” Rep. Stephen Handy, who introduced the red flag proposal, said Monday. I’ve taken this bill as far as I can take it. I mean, there’s lots of support for it. But where ... it counts, it’s not there.”

The idea — which has been embraced by 17 states and Washington, D.C. — is popular among Utahns; it garnered more than two-thirds support in a statewide poll conducted last year by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

But with the state’s powerful gun lobby arrayed against the measure, it has faced a stiff headwind on Capitol Hill. Handy first sponsored the proposal in 2018, in the weeks after 17 people died in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, he brought it back in the 2019 session, but the bill remained mired in the House Rules Committee and never received a public hearing.

While there seemed to be some legislative support for a red flag law in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Handy said it has cooled over time.

“It’s just human nature," the Layton Republican said. “I think that something like that is so horrific, you think, ‘Ah, that couldn’t’ happen in Utah.' ”

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, calls the red flag legislation a “gun confiscation bill” and says it would violate the rights of firearm owners.

“It’s certainly not providing due process, in our view, when dealing with a constitutionally protected right,” he said in a Monday phone interview.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah gun rights advocate Clark Aposhian demonstrates how a bump stock works on an AKM-47 at a gun range in Murray, UT, on Thursday, April 4, 2019.

The law already provides options for handling crisis situations, he says, including allowing gun owners to voluntarily commit their firearms to law enforcement if they are worried a person in their household is at risk of self-harm or of harming someone else.

Handy rejects the idea that extreme-risk protective orders erode Second Amendment rights and called it an “inflammatory” and misleading argument used by ardent gun rights advocates.

The legislation would empower family members, roommates or police officers to petition the court to strip firearms from individuals who are a danger or have made threats to harm themselves or others. After considering the evidence, the court could then issue a short-term emergency order and schedule a hearing within 14 days so the gun owner could present his or her case. A judge could then restrict someone from possessing firearms for up to a year.

Red flag laws across the nation have withstood constitutional challenge, including one in Connecticut that has been in place since 1999, Thompson said. On Monday, she expressed her hope that Utah lawmakers would at least allow Handy’s red flag bill to move onto the floor of the Legislature for a full hearing.

“I honestly believe," she said, “that if people learn about the law and these people get feedback from their constituents, that we can get this bill passed.”

Several dozen of her fellow gun safety advocates braved the snowy ascent to the state Capitol on Monday morning to advocate for Handy’s bill and other gun violence prevention measures that the Legislature will consider in coming weeks.

During a speech to the gathered group, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill noted that about 58% of American adults have either experienced gun violence firsthand or care for someone who has. Firearms are the leading cause of death in the nation for black children and teens, and each day, 100 Americans are killed with guns, he continued.

“This is what gun violence is doing to us as a people, to our society, to the fabric of who we are as a nation,” Gill said.

House Minority Leader Brian King also spoke Monday about his proposal calling for universal background checks for gun purchases in Utah. Currently, while federally licensed gun dealers must perform these checks, they’re not always required for purchases over online marketplaces or transactions between private individuals, King said.

The Salt Lake City Democrat said his bill and Handy’s legislation would work in concert to “keep guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn’t have them because they’re convicted felons, because they’ve pled guilty to domestic violence offenses, because they’ve been adjudicated incompetent.”

The legislation would still contain a few exemptions, he said, and wouldn’t mandate background checks for transfers between family members or to a police officer or member of the military.

Aposhian says background checks “do little if anything” to stop mass shootings, arguing that perpetrators would find ways of getting firearms even if prohibited from buying them legally. Firearm advocates also worry, he said, that the legislation would have dire unintended consequences by making it harder for a gun owner in the midst of a mental health crisis to transfer firearms to a friend or neighbor for safekeeping.

King said he has heard the latter concern from health advocates and is looking at adjusting his bill’s language in response to them.