Utah lawmakers preparing red flag gun bills after original sponsor halts effort

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

Two Utah lawmakers — one Republican and one Democrat — are preparing bills that would allow the confiscation of a person’s guns under court order, despite the sponsor of a similar proposal saying last week that it lacks the necessary support to become law.

Salt Lake City Democrat Rep. Joel Briscoe and Woods Cross Republican Todd Weiler have both opened bill files dealing with extreme risk protective orders — also known as red flag laws — in which gun owners deemed a danger to themselves or others can be ordered to relinquish their firearms.

“This is not jackbooted thugs taking people’s guns,” Briscoe said. “This is protecting gun owners from themselves when they’re not in a safe space, and maybe protecting others.”

For the past three years, red flag legislation has been sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, but has gained little traction in the Republican-controlled House. And earlier this month, Handy said he would be abandoning the legislation for the current legislative session.

“I’ve taken this bill as far as I can take it,” Handy said at the time.

But both Briscoe and Weiler said they’d like discussion on the topic to continue, while acknowledging that red flag laws face an uphill climb in the state.

“You don’t win by quitting. They can’t say ‘yes’ if you don’t ask,” Briscoe said. “You have to ask and you have to put it in front of them, and you have to say ‘please, can we talk about this issue?’”

Weiler said he has not yet discussed his proposal with members of the Senate Republican Caucus, and that he’s not necessarily interested in pushing a bill that lacks support. But he added that because Handy’s bills had never passed the House, senators have had little occasion to discuss the merits and options.

He said he’s interested in finding a “middle of the road” solution that balances public and personal safety with individual property rights. He also acknowledged the potential for the law to be abused — he gave the example of a disgruntled former spouse — and said his proposal would require family members to first contact law enforcement agencies, which would then screen out meritless requests.

“I think there’s a lot of bills this year where we’re recognizing we need to do better when it comes to people and mental health crises,” Weiler said, “and I think this is one step in the right direction.”

Weiler also pointed to state laws that already prohibited a person from having firearms if they are subject to a protective order. And the question of confiscation under court order, he said, is related to that precedent.

“This is not a completely novel concept,” Weiler said, “And in any event, I think it’s something that is worthy of debate.”

Briscoe said his bill would allow either family members or the police to petition the courts for an extreme violence protective order. And he said his primary concern is to combat suicide, as attempts with a gun are far more likely to be successful than other methods.

“Guns are very effective at doing what they’re designed to do,” Briscoe said, “which is to maim, injure and take life.”

Another lawmaker, West Valley City Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, is sponsoring legislation that would allow a family member or roommate to temporarily turn a person’s gun over to the police for safekeeping. Thatcher did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Briscoe and Weiler said their bills were motivated, in part, by personal experiences. Briscoe’s brother worked on a college campus where multiple victims were killed by a shooter, and a family member of Weiler’s survived a suicide attempt involving a firearm.

“If there would have been a way for us to try to keep her away from guns, we would have certainly taken that,” Weiler said. “Unfortunately, she was able to get a hold of one.”

And on Monday, members of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition called on lawmakers to pass red flag legislation in the wake of a series of shootings in the state.

"Urgent intervention is needed,” coalition Executive Director Jenn Oxborrow said. “Utilization of an extreme risk protective order could help prevent such tragic shootings and lower the number of firearm deaths in Utah.”

Briscoe said he believes the people of Utah are supportive of extreme risk protective orders, and he suggested that failing to consider the legislation could put lawmakers further out of step with their constituents.

He pointed to recent citizen efforts to legalize medical marijuana and expand Medicaid services, which followed years of stalled debate on Capitol Hill, and last month’s repeal of a controversial tax law in the face of a referendum vote.

“You don’t always know when the turning points are going to be," he said. “But you can’t wait for the turning points — you gotta push.”

He said he is not interested in the mass confiscation of firearms, and that he agrees with gun rights supporters that the majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens. But he also referred to recent shooting deaths that have occurred in the state, and said his goal is to run compassionate legislation with protections for gun owners.

“Why do we allow so many people to die when there’s so many things we could do that could help?” he said.

Handy said Tuesday that he welcomes continued discussion on the subject of extreme risk protective orders, but that bills on that subject face a high bar to clear.

“Let’s see what happens,” he said, “because it would be nice to have a hearing.”