Commentary: Utah Legislature believes random kindness is the best response to gun violence

Utah cares about public safety — just not more than it cares about guns.

FILE- This March 14, 2018 file photo shows Students sitting in silence as they rally in front of the White House in Washington. Students walked out of school to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month's massacre of 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the wake of a Valentine's Day shooting, a handful of Parkland, Fla., teenagers are on the cusp of pulling off what could be one of the largest marches in history with nearly 1 million expected in DC and more than 800 sister marches planned across every continent. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

On the final day of its 2018 session, the Utah Legislature designated April 2018 as “#MSDkindness month,” in honor of the 17 people killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Introducing the resolution, sponsor Rep. Paul Ray said, “Let’s just remember these victims and let’s do our best here in Utah to prevent this from happening.” Unfortunately, the Utah Legislature seems to have a low bar for “doing our best.” Its plan to prevent school shootings? Random kindness, reported through a tip line.

The SafeUT app and website, which rolled out statewide last year, is a crisis tip line that connects students with crisis counselors at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.

And now, when selecting an incident to report on the app, users have the option to choose “kindness” — right between “harassment” and “knives.” The Legislature is encouraging Utahns to use SafeUT to report good deeds throughout April, and wants other states to follow suit.

This response to one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history exemplifies the willful naiveté of the Legislature regarding gun violence: Random acts of kindness are not a proportional antidote to intentional acts of violence.

Meanwhile, the Legislature passed on the opportunity to take even one small step toward preventing school shootings. In a record-setting year for Utah bills, only one out of the 1,359 total bills filed addressed gun violence. H.B. 483, Extreme Risk Protective Order, would have created a temporary protective order for a person planning to hurt herself or others. Family members or roommates could present evidence of impending harm to a judge, who would then authorize police to take away that person’s firearms. This procedure would have entailed the same due process as all other temporary protective orders issued by courts.

Extreme risk protective orders, also known as “red flag” laws, are one of the few gun control measures backed by the Trump administration. They are currently receiving wide bipartisan support, and evidence suggests that individuals planning mass shootings usually tell someone close to them. Similar legislation has been passed or is being considered by 23 other states. Still, the bill died in committee, characterized by Rep. Brian Greene as “an effort to confiscate guns rather than protect the public.” Utah cares about public safety — just not more than it cares about guns.

The practical argument for #MSDkindness, of course, is that it will get students familiar with the SafeUT app. If they use it to report a good deed in April, they will hopefully be more likely to report something serious in the future. As a means to addressing mental health issues, systems like SafeUT have a relevant place in pre-empting violence.

But the problem with a month of kindness isn’t that it is a bad idea, but rather that it is the only idea adopted by the Legislature. Random kindness, without any meaningful public policy to stand beside it, will not be sufficient to prevent the next shooting — not in a classroom, not at a concert, not in a church.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, our state government steps forward to reflect the collective mourning of our community. Flags are lowered; victims are honored. This is both an appropriate and important government function. But the state has a further responsibility to reflect on what failures have facilitated these tragedies and then to take concrete action to prevent further tragedies. The Utah Legislature has shirked this responsibility.

The best way to honor the innocent people who were killed at Stoneman Douglas is by ensuring we don’t lose more innocent people. Offering up a formal resolution on kindness while simultaneously rejecting any legislation to prevent gun violence is worse than naive — it is a dangerous and irresponsible failure to protect those most at risk of harm.

Ultimately, this is a hollow way to memorialize the lives lost in Parkland, and an empty gesture of concern for lives in Utah.

Lauren Simpson is a policy and advocacy fellow with Alliance for a Better Utah and a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.