Salt Lake County opposes new bill to block local governments from enacting gun-control policies

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Hundreds of pro-gun activists gather at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in response to recent proposals from legislators, including red-flag laws, universal background checks and the elimination of private transfers.

A new proposal under consideration in the Utah Legislature could unravel a recent move by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson requiring gun shows held at county-owned facilities to conduct federal background checks.

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that his bill, HB271, was “pretty much done before all of that happened” and wasn’t drafted specifically to preempt Salt Lake County.

“But we did factor that in,” he added, “so it should close the loophole that they were using to justify what they were doing there.”

Members of the Republican majority Salt Lake County Council voted 5-4 Tuesday to signal their opposition to the legislation amid concerns from several council members about its penalties for noncompliant communities and the ramifications for local decision-making.

“I feel like this is a state that really loves [local control] until it doesn’t,” Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani said during a council discussion on the proposal. “This is very simple: We should have the ability to negotiate our contracts in our facilities and to think this oversteps that is really troubling.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Newly-elected Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, second from left, speaks after taking the oath of office on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2019 during the Salt Lake County Council's work session meeting. Left to right are Ann Granato, Ghorbani, Arlyn Bradshaw, Richard Snelgrove, Max Burdick, and Aimee Winder Newton.

The state has long maintained control over firearm regulations, prohibiting cities and counties from imposing any regulations on the ownership, possession, purchase, transfer or transport of guns. In 2006, the state Supreme Court used that law to strike down an attempt by the University of Utah to ban guns on campus.

But Maloy said there’s a need to make it “very clear” who maintains authority in the gun control arena. And his bill would clarify that local authorities are prohibited from enforcing or enacting any ordinance, regulation, rule or policy pertaining to firearms that “in any way inhibits or restricts” their possession and use “unless specifically authorized by the Legislature.”

“There’s been incidents throughout the years where subdivisions and counties have tried to — and oftentimes it’s not maliciously or on purpose, they just don’t know — where they come up with their own laws or ordinances that go in conflict with what the state has authorized them to do,” he said.

Wilson’s move to force background checks in an effort to close what’s commonly known as the gun show “loophole” was met with frustration among some gun activists, who questioned whether her decision was legal under state law.

But the mayor, who noted that the county’s legal counsel had signed off on the measure, argued that the policy change rested within the purview of the county, which she said is able to set contracts and determine which shows to host within the walls of its own facilities.

“If I contacted all members of the Legislature to ask their opinion on things, I probably wouldn’t do a lot,” Wilson said when she announced the move late last year.

During Tuesday’s briefing, Wilson stressed that there is broad public support for background checks among Utahns, and she raised concerns about the ramifications the bill could have, if passed.

“What requirement would we have to actually go to the gun show, rip out the signs and take a step backward on this important issue?” she said. “That’s what’s really troubling to me.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson makes a comment at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Several council members also expressed alarm about the proposed penalties Maloy’s legislation would create for local governments that violate its preemption on gun control.

Under the bill, a judge could find any regulation void and issue a permanent injunction keeping the local authority from enforcing it — as well as levy a fine of up to $500 “for each day the local authority or state agency is found to have knowingly and willfully violated” the law.

HB271 would also prohibit a local government from using the defense in court that it was “acting in good faith” or in line with the advice of its legal counsel and prevent the use of public money to defend a person who had “knowingly and willfully” flouted state law. And a violation could constitute grounds for termination of employment of contract or removal from office.

“The ramifications for the county could be significant,” said Darcy Goddard, who works in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, during the briefing.

Still, several council members said they weren’t comfortable opposing Maloy’s proposal outright, calling for a pause so they could gather more information and work with the bill’s sponsor to see if they could change some of the pieces they found distasteful.

“I’d actually like to learn more about this bill because I think that the state is the one that regulates that and I’m supportive of that in this instance,” said Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who expressed concern about the mayor’s move to force background checks without council input.

A proposal for the council to stay neutral on the bill died with a 4-5 vote.

While the bill caused some consternation among Salt Lake County leaders, Maloy said Tuesday that he thinks its passage would be “good overall for the people of Utah,” who would know without question which government body to look to for firearm laws and regulations.

“And, you know, it gives them direction if they feel like there’s been a subdivision or a county or a state agency that has gone beyond what their authority is,” he added.