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Utahns could temporarily give up their right to buy guns under bill before state lawmakers

Proponents of the measure say it could help protect people at risk of suicide.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy (pictured in 2018), is sponsoring a bill under which Utahns could temporarily give up their right to buy guns if they feel they're at risk of self-harm.

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

People at risk of self-harm could put their names on a “no gun” list to stop themselves from buying a firearm in the midst of a mental health crisis, under the provisions of a bill now moving through the Utah Legislature.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who’s sponsoring the legislation, said the measure “isn’t going to save a lot of lives, but I believe that it will save some lives.” And it has won support from mental health and gun rights advocates alike, both of whom see it as a way to prevent suicide deaths in Utah without involuntarily stripping people of their firearms.

One woman who spoke at a Tuesday committee hearing on the bill believes her mother might still be alive if she’d been able to add her name to the state’s list of people prohibited from buying a firearm. Her mother wanted to live but was taking prescription medication with a side effect that caused her to have suicidal impulses.

Frightened by her altered mental state, her mother repeatedly sought help at inpatient psychiatric facilities. But after leaving one of these hospital programs, she drove to a gun store, bought a firearm and fatally shot herself.

“My mom had never even held a gun before. My mom would have signed up for this list because she did not want to die,” the woman testified to a legislative panel. “A voluntary waiting period to purchase a gun could have saved her life.”

With the bill, anyone who wants to join the firearm restricted list would fill out a form posted on the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification website and turn the document in to a local law enforcement agency.

The person would stay on that temporary restricted list for at least 30 days but could request removal after that point. During that period, the individual wouldn’t be eligible to buy a gun and would have his or her concealed carry permit temporarily suspended.

The restrictions would lapse automatically after six months, unless the person requested an extension, according to HB267.

Morissa Henn, community health director for Intermountain Healthcare, said the legislation would help people who want to cut off immediate access to firearms — which are by far the most fatal method of self-harm in Utah and account for about half of all suicide deaths.

“It would allow them to voluntarily suspend their ability to buy guns, recognizing that they may experience a future mental health crisis,” Henn said during a phone interview. “They don’t want to be able to impulsively purchase a firearm that may cause lethal harm.”

Though Intermountain is not taking a formal position on HB267, Henn said the bill is “based on principles we know to be true.” Most suicidal crises are brief, she said, so keeping someone safe through those moments will usually save his or her life in the long term.

And there are indications that people would take advantage of the option to place themselves on a restricted list, she added. One survey of 200 patients receiving psychiatric care in Alabama found that nearly half would be willing to add their names to a “no gun” list.

Fredrick Vars, a University of Alabama School of Law professor who conducted that patient survey, testified Tuesday that he has bipolar disorder and would likely have died by suicide if he’d had easy access to guns at certain times in his life. He’d be willing to add his name to a restricted list if the option were available, Vars said.

“It’s not actually gun control,” he said. “It’s self-control.”

Washington and Virginia have passed similar pieces of legislation, and a number of other states are considering versions of it, Henn said. The proposal in Utah has also earned support from gun rights groups, who appreciate that it relies on voluntary action by firearm owners rather than forcing them to give up their weapons.

“The last thing a person in crisis needs is access to a firearm or some other lethal means,” Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, told lawmakers. “We support this legislation at the Utah Shooting Sports Council because it is completely voluntary, self-revokable, private and confidential.”

The House Judiciary Committee passed the legislation Tuesday, along with a couple of other measures relating to gun safety. All proposals will now go before the full House for consideration.

One of those other bills, HB200, would clarify the process for temporarily handing over firearms to law enforcement for safekeeping during a crisis. This “safe harbor” provision already exists in state law and allows a firearm owner or an adult cohabitant to relinquish the guns if someone in his or her home seems at risk of self-harm or in danger of hurting another person.

The legislation brought forward by Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, states that a gun owner can turn over firearms to an individual police officer, as well as a law enforcement agency.

However, Ed Rutan, of the Gun Violence Prevention Center, noted that the proposals offered up by Maloy and Eliason both depend on someone’s willingness relinquish their gun rights — and he expressed concern that many people suffering from mental illness also experience anosognosia, or an unawareness of their own health condition.

“If we really want to fully address gun violence caused by mental illness, we’ve got to deal with anosognosia,” he said. “A purely voluntary approach just doesn’t work.”

The third gun bill considered by the committee Tuesday would establish a pilot program to instruct high school students in firearm safety. Through the three-year program, students in participating school districts could enroll in a 0.5-credit elective course that would cover basic operation of handguns, shotguns and rifles; state firearm laws; marksmanship; and safety and suicide prevention.

“I learned at an early age how to safely handle firearms,” Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee. “And there’s many families that don’t grow up with this opportunity.”

Students taking the course would be permitted to fire a gun only if they were at a shooting range with a qualified instructor, according to the bill, HB258. The program would also have to comply with state laws that generally prohibit carrying a weapon on school grounds.

The state school board would choose up to three school districts for the pilot program and would award them grants to pay for supplies and develop a curriculum, the legislation states. Supporting the program would cost the state about $70,000 per year, legislative analysts estimate.

Sara Jones, representing the Utah Education Association, spoke against the bill, saying decisions about curriculum are best left to local school districts and that educators don’t need a state directive added to their plate as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local school districts “know their communities, they know the needs of their students and they can already create appropriate elective courses that they would like to include in their school communities,” she testified.

However, Rep. Brady Brammer argued that it is appropriate for the state to weigh in if the local school districts aren’t acting on their own.

“Sometimes, what the Legislature does, is it moves things into schools when there is a vacuum,” the Pleasant Grove Republican said.

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