Utah House committee advances bill to block cities and counties from creating firearm regulations

The bill would also prevent a political subdivision of the state from enforcing federal firearms regulations enacted after Jan. 1 if the state has not also adopted that law.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of pro gun proponents gather at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.

A new firearm preemption bill that began its journey through the Utah Legislature on Monday would, if ultimately approved, unravel a Salt Lake County rule requiring federal background checks at gun shows held at county-owned facilities such as the Salt Palace Convention Center or Mountain America Expo Center.

Utah code already prohibits cities and counties from imposing any regulations on the ownership, possession, purchase, transfer or transport of guns — a law the state Supreme Court used in 2006 to strike down an attempt by the University of Utah to ban guns on campus.

But the proposal from Rep. Cory Maloy, which passed through committee on Monday with a 6-4 vote, seeks to make absolutely clear that the Legislature “occupies the whole field of state regulation of firearms and ammunition.” And it would void any provision that violates the Legislature’s preemption on gun regulations.

“This will be great for the people of Utah,” Maloy argued before the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. “It clears up a lot of ambiguity as it relates to what political subdivisions can and can’t do.”

The Lehi Republican ran a similar bill in last year’s session that made it through the House but didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate.

The effort to clarify the bounds of firearm regulations comes after Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson issued an executive order in 2019 to force background checks at gun shows as part of an effort to close what’s commonly known as the gun show “loophole.” Previously, sales between two private parties didn’t require a background check.

Wilson argues that such a policy change rests within the purview of the county, which is able to set contracts and determine which shows to host within the walls of its own facilities.

“We own [and] operate convention facilities and set the terms for any vendor,” she told lawmakers Monday, adding that the provision requiring background checks has worked “fairly well” so far.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo via AP) In this July 30, 2019, file photo, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks at a news conference at the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Building. A bill now before the Legislature would override Wilson's requirement that background checks be conducted for gun sales at shows hosted in county facilities.

SMG, the county contractor that runs the Mountain America Expo Center, had in the past imposed without incident other restrictions on gun shows, including prohibitions on magazines inside firearms and on patrons loading and unloading firearms inside the venue, the mayor’s office has said previously.

Wilson also argued Monday that she was “following the will of people in my county,” noting that past opinion polls have shown wide support among Utahns for background checks.

A January 2016 UtahPolicy.com survey, for instance, found 76% of Utahns were in favor of legislation expanding background checks on firearm sales to purchases made over the internet or at gun shows.

But while some gun control groups have praised the mayor’s move to require these background checks, the order has been met with frustration among some gun activists who question whether her decision was legal under state law.

Those who spoke in favor of Maloy’s bill, HB76, reiterated those concerns Monday and argued that state law would not allow the county’s authority over contracts to extend to Second Amendment regulations.

“There’s a lot you can do in a contract,” said newly-elected Salt Lake County Councilwoman Laurie Stringham, who was not on the body when the mayor made the rule change. “But one of the things we need to be careful of is when those contracts supersede personal rights and constitutional rights and in this case there are some things that need to be handled specifically on a state level.”

Others proponents of the bill, including National Rifle Association representative Dan Reid, said it would help ensure “consistency in firearm laws throughout the state.”

The Utah League of Cities and Towns and March for Our Lives Utah, a student group that advocates for gun control measures, spoke against the bill.

Maloy noted that the version of his proposal that he ran last year was drafted before the county moved to require background checks and that this bill is not meant to target any particular local government but would affect all of them equally.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Rep. Cory Maloy points as Rep. Kera Birkeland looks on Thursday, June 18, 2020, on the House floor, at the Utah state Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

If ultimately approved, the bill would make clear that authority to regulate firearms is reserved for the state, unless specifically authorized by the Legislature by statute. There are a few exceptions, including an allowance for homeless shelters to prohibit guns within their walls and for law enforcement agencies to enforce regulations for firearms used by their officers in the course of their official duties.

A local authority that violates the state’s preemption rules could face litigation, and a court could order the ordinance void and issue a permanent injunction prohibiting the local agency from enforcing it.

Another provision included in the bill would prevent a political subdivision of the state from enforcing federal firearm regulations enacted after Jan. 1 if the state has not also adopted that law. The bill would create a process within the attorney general’s office for investigating complaints related to that preemption and any entity that violated that rule could lose state dollars.

Sam Robinson, with the Utah Gun Exchange, spoke in support of that piece of the bill, arguing it would be necessary as President Joe Biden’s administration eyes gun reform.

Maloy said legislative counsel has indicated that piece of the bill could be challenged in court but related it to the state’s marijuana laws, which don’t align with a federal prohibition against legal cannabis.

“We’ve really relaxed those laws here in Utah to provide for medical marijuana, but most of the actions that take place in that new industry here in Utah are against federal law,” he noted. “And the federal agencies pretty much don’t enforce those. And so we feel like it’s going to be very, very similar to that.”

Support for the bill fell largely on party lines, with one Republican — West Valley Rep. Craig Hall — joining three Democrats to vote against the measure.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said ahead of his vote that he recognizes that the state constitution provides authority for the Legislature to regulate firearms. But he expressed concern that the bill would wipe out “a very reasonable and well supported action by Salt Lake County” to ensure guns don’t get into the wrong hands.

“I just don’t think that it’s a good move in the name of public safety to restrict the ability of the county to do that,” he said, noting that he would not be able to support the bill for that reason.

HB76 now moves to the full House for further consideration.