The horrifying massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, shocked the nation and prompted a response that prior school shootings had not — action from Congress.
Last month, President Joe Biden signed into law bipartisan gun legislation that broke a nearly three-decade stalemate on the issue.
The new law includes provisions meant to bolster the nation’s mental health safety net, restrict purchases by domestic abusers, tighten background checks for young purchasers and incentivize states to implement red flag laws, aimed at trying to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals.
Sen. Mitt Romney joined 14 of his Republican colleagues in voting for the package that, tepid as it was, went too far for the rest of Utah’s delegation, including Sen. Mike Lee.
Lee’s opponent, Evan McMullin, praised Romney for his courage and supported the bill, which was cobbled together from measures that have widespread public support, nationally and in Utah.
Take the red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protective orders (ERPOs). A new poll by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Deseret News found that 72% of Utahns are in favor of allowing family members to petition the courts for an order to remove firearms from individuals who pose a risk to themselves or others.
Previous polls over the last few years have regularly yielded similar levels of support. Nineteen states — including Republican states like Florida and Indiana — have such laws on the books, which have been upheld by courts as not violating a gun owner’s rights.
Quantifying their effectiveness can be difficult — how do you count shootings that don’t happen? But research in Connecticut estimated that every 20 orders issued prevent one suicide. In Indiana, the figure was put at one for every 10. And researchers from the University of California, Davis, recently wrote that California’s red flag law had been applied in 58 threatened mass shootings — none of which ended up being carried out.
In a piece in The Tribune in 2020, Mary Ann Thompson, an organizer for Mothers Demand Action, wrote about finding her brother’s half-written suicide note 30 years ago and went to everyone she could, from law enforcement to emergency rooms. No one could intervene. He killed himself a short time later.
In the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school massacre in 2018, Republican lawmakers created a School Safety Commission and one of the key recommendations they came up with was, you guessed it, red flag laws.
So we have broad public support for red flag laws among Utahns, 19 states that have managed to navigate the due process issues arising from the orders, real-life examples of lives that could be saved, data indicating ERPOs are effective, and a legislative task force endorsing their passage.
The obvious question becomes: Why hasn’t Utah enacted one of its own?
The answer, as is so often the case, appears to be the National Rifle Association.
The first bid to pass an extreme risk protective order bill in Utah came in 2018, just after Parkland, when Rep. Steve Handy, R-Bountiful, took a crack, but it came late in the session and ended up being shelved.
He spent the following year trying to solve the concerns of gun groups. The NRA came in with 14 objections to the original bill, said Carrie Butler, now with the Utah Public Health Association, who helped negotiate language addressing 13 of them.
“They still threw us under the bus and refused to support it,” Butler said.
In the end, Handy threw up his hands. “I’ve taken this bill as far as I can take it,” Handy said at the time.
In 2020, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, took over the bill and reached out to the representatives from the NRA, believing they would be willing to work in good faith. He was wrong.
“My goal was to try to run a red flag bill that had all the components that the NRA was looking for so I could get their support,” Weiler said. “So I met with representatives … from the NRA and said, ‘What would it take? What kind of red flag bill could you support?’ And I drafted a bill that included all of those elements.”
His bill was full of due process, required law enforcement to request the order (to prevent frivolous petitions out of spite), included police training and included options for judicial review. He bent over backward to give the NRA what they wanted.
“At the end of the day, after I included everything they said it would require, I still couldn’t get their support,” Weiler said.
Without the NRA, Weiler couldn’t get enough votes from his Senate colleagues and the bill died without even getting a hearing. Weiler said he would sponsor the bill again if he thought it could pass, but he doesn’t want to futilely bash his head against the wall.
So where do we go from here? Butler thinks the best course of action might be one we’ve seen other times the Legislature has refused to listen to constituents — running a ballot initiative packaging a red flag law with other measures with broad public support, like expanded background checks and restricting assault weapons.
It may indeed be the only way to take power away from the NRA and put it back where it belongs, in the hands of Utah voters.