Utah House, Senate approve resolutions to explore making the state a Second Amendment sanctuary

The nonbinding resolutions also express support for the right to bear arms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lawmakers in the House Chamber during a special session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

The Utah House and Senate passed separate resolutions Wednesday reiterating their commitment to the constitutional right to bear arms and expressing their desire to explore the possibility of declaring the state a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

The nonbinding resolutions, approved in an “extraordinary session” that was called by legislators in defiance of Gov. Spencer Cox’s wishes, are intended to make a statement of values and do not carry the force of law.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who sponsored the Senate declaration, said he opted to run it amid “significant public outcry” and concern from constituents about federal gun policies.

“Unfortunately, there’s been some saber rattling in Washington, D.C., and people are concerned in Utah about someone coming in and taking away guns or restricting the use of guns on the federal level,” he told reporters during a news briefing ahead of the vote on Wednesday.

Asked to specify which policies pose concern, Vickers couldn’t name any. “Right now, admittedly there are none,” he said.

Gun sales hit record highs in Utah in 2020, when more than 180,000 firearms were purchased, said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, who sponsored the House resolution. Interest in guns is on the rise across the nation, she continued, and Utah’s firearms stores are reporting that many women and older individuals are becoming first-time owners.

“Many of our constituents and many in this body have watched in horror as the federal government, through international agreements, executive orders and congressional action threaten the fundamental right to self-defense of every American,” she said. “Our citizens in Utah expect us to stand between them and the federal government overreach.”

Cox had declined to put the Second Amendment sanctuary issue on the agenda for the special session he called Wednesday, arguing that the proposal and another banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms “would benefit from more time, thought, dialogue and input.”

Utah is already a “sanctuary” for the right to bear arms, he contended.

Legislative leaders then decided to take matters into their own hands, bringing the proposals onto the floor over his objections.

There are at least 10 “Second Amendment sanctuary” states in the U.S., according to Vice News — a roster that includes Republican strongholds like Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

In Utah, several counties have declared themselves as Second Amendment Sanctuaries, including Utah, Uintah, Wayne and Weber counties.

Proponents believe a policy on the state level would allow Utah leaders to ignore new federal laws or regulations on firearms that lawmakers believe violate the constitutional right to bear arms, but there’s different ways of approaching it. Vickers said a bill to determine what a sanctuary state might look like in Utah would likely be considered during the general legislative session

“What we’re trying to do, quite frankly, is we’re trying to send a message to our constituents that we do have concerns about this and that we will take further action, or at least consider further action,” he said during debate of the bill. “I don’t know how it will go, how the session will go. I don’t even know who the sponsors will be or if the legislation will make it to the general session. But we’ll have that robust discussion.”

Legal experts say, though, that passage of such a bill would likely be mostly symbolic, since federal law trumps any state provision.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, voted in support of the resolution Wednesday but noted that if the state did declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary, it would have “no legal impact.”

“I vote for this resolution with the full understanding that it doesn’t actually do anything but I do think it will make some people feel better,” he said.

The House resolution passed unanimously and with no debate, with all 17 Democratic lawmakers having left the chamber in protest to another measure on critical race theory.

The bill passed in the Senate along party lines, with a 22-6 vote. Democrats who spoke against it in the chamber said they support the Second Amendment but worried that the sanctuary status was not well defined and that it could have unintended consequences.

“To create a sanctuary state in my mind, at least, would be something that would open the state up to every illegal gun-running activity, criminal activity to take place,” said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. “Because a sanctuary means the federal law has no standing in our state; we will not enforce it or help enforce any law, federal law, in the state of Utah.”

Vickers said that could be one approach to creating a sanctuary state but said he would oppose such a policy.

In explaining his vote, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he felt it was inconsistent for Democrats to support sanctuary cities “where they allow illegals to live in their city without being U.S. citizens.”

“But yet when we want a sanctuary that’s in our favor, it’s just funny how opposite polarization we became as a nation and a state, and it’s very hypocritical to say we shouldn’t have sanctuary cities for one thing and not another,” he said.

The nonbinding resolutions do not require the signature of the governor.

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.

Correction: May 20, 7:15 a.m.: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate headline and it has been updated.