Gun lending bill hits a dead end in Utah House committee

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, speaks to members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee Feb. 20, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Second Amendment advocates turned out in force Monday against a proposal to outline legal liability for lending out a firearm — even though the bill’s sponsor said it would establish a defense for gun owners.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard said his bill would simply codify existing case law about when firearm owners are on the hook for injuries or property damage inflicted after they’ve negligently loaned out a gun or left it unsecured. The legislation would also carve out an affirmative defense for gun owners who had no way of knowing they were lending a firearm to someone who’d later carry out a destructive act.

I don’t believe, at its core, that this is a gun bill,” Stoddard, D-Sandy, said in an interview. “I think it’s a public policy bill where we are taking control of what the courts have stated is the law and making it more clear.”

However, a stream of advocates testified Monday that the legislation, HB115, would place an inappropriate burden on gun owners for crimes that happen when a firearm is out of their control. After the public comment, a legislative committee voted against moving the bill forward.

“House Bill 115 displays the classic anti-gun tactic of shifting responsibility from the criminal to the law-abiding firearms owner,” Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, testified to the House Judiciary Committee. “The bill takes Utah one step down the path away from individual accountability and personal responsibility.”

Other speakers raised similar objections to the bill’s allocation of responsibility, asking whether a homeowner should be held liable if a stick from his or her yard were used to bludgeon another person.

House Minority Leader Brian King said he, too, supports the idea of individual responsibility, which covers the gun owner’s obligation to take care when storing or lending out a firearm. The Salt Lake City Democrat also argued the legislation wouldn’t change the way the judicial system operates.

It isn’t different. It’s just clarifying what’s already in the law,” King said.

In order for gun owners to be held liable in a lawsuit, the bill states that they must have entrusted a firearm to an “unfit individual" — such as a minor, someone with a violent history, someone with a mental or physical illness or incapacitation, or someone who has shown signs they might do harm.

While Judy objected that these definitions of unfitness are potentially discriminatory, Stoddard said they were taken from established case law.

Stoddard last year unsuccessfully sponsored a similar version of the bill, calling it “Lauren’s Law” after University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, who was shot and killed by a man using a borrowed gun. The man who loaned the killer his gun in that case was sentenced last year to three years supervised release.

Stoddard says he plans to bring the bill back again in next year’s session.

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