Commentary: The truth about ‘Lauren’s Law’

Lauren McCluskey’s murder on Oct. 22 shook our entire community to its core.

Lauren was killed by Melvin Shawn Rowland, a man she had briefly dated, with a firearm he borrowed from a friend. As a convicted felon, Rowland was not legally able to own or operate a firearm — but that didn’t stop him from obtaining one.

This has spurred a conversation in the midst of our collective grief: What is the responsibility of firearm owners? What is their duty to protect their community, and where does that duty end and begin?

Lauren’s mother, Jill McCluskey, notably said “It is a great responsibility to own a gun” when she called for consequences for the owner of the firearm who killed her daughter — and I think all of us, gun owners and alike, can agree.

Now, among this legislative session’s gun bills is House Bill 190, Liability of Firearm Custodian — known as “Lauren’s Law” — and, like any gun bill in Utah, it has inspired controversy. As the bill’s sponsor, I would like to invite conversation, and clear up some big misunderstandings about the bill’s intent and impact.

There is no reason to penalize responsible gun owners for the actions of others, but there does need to be a precedent for discouraging negligence, and creating accountability when negligence causes suffering.

The full text of Lauren’s Law is available on the Utah legislative website, le.utah.gov. In reading it, you will see it’s quite short, and that’s by design. The bill is narrowly tailored, so much so that it has been estimated to be applicable in only 10 or fewer cases per year. The bill premise is to provide a pathway to civil liability for the victim(s) of a felony crime committed with a firearm, even if the firearm was operated by someone other than the owner. This would allow Lauren McCluskey’s family to seek civil damages against the owner of the gun that killed their daughter, as the firearm was given willingly by the custodian. It does not create any criminal penalties, penalize lending weapons, punish firearm owners or infringe upon anyone’s constitutional rights.

Concerns have been raised that Lauren’s Law penalizes crime victims — gun owners whose weapons are stolen — and this is simply not true. The bill has specific exemptions for cases of theft. Nearly 25 percent of the bill’s text is dedicated to ensuring that crime victims are not re-victimized by the system when their weapon is taken without permission. As a victim advocate, I care deeply about making sure victims are treated fairly by the system, and took intentional steps to guarantee no crime victim would ever suffer from the application of Lauren’s Law.

Another concern is that the bill could penalize victims of attacks who use a firearm in self-defense. As a prosecutor, I work regularly with domestic violence survivors, many of whom were forced to take drastic measures to protect themselves from their attacker. I understand the gravity of domestic and intimate partner violence, which is why the bill includes specific language to exclude acts of self-defense.

The only people who would ever face penalties under Lauren’s Law are people like the man who willingly, thoughtlessly gave Melvin Shawn Rowland the means to kill an innocent person. Most gun owners in Utah will never be impacted.

The bill encourages responsible use, provides consequences for negligence, and accomplishes this without creating any barrier to firearm access or penalizing responsible gun owners. I hope as HB190 moves through this session, and future sessions, we can have reasonable, honest conversations about what it means, and what it doesn’t.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, speaks to members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Salt Lake City. State lawmakers are pressing pause on two gun measures, including a proposal inspired by the shooting death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey. Democratic sponsor Stoddard said he's planning to keep working on the measure that would hold gun owners liable if they lend out a firearm that's used in a crime. Stoddard's measure stalled out after hitting opposition from gun-rights advocates, as did another to penalize gun owners if someone is hurt by a firearm that isn't safely stored. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Andrew Stoddard is the Murray city prosecutor, past chair of Midvale Community Council and a longtime victim advocate. He represents House District 44 in the Utah House of Representatives.