Edwin Rutan: Utahns are dying from gun violence while legislators push ‘message bills’

Second Amendment doesn’t mean no regulations on guns.

The rate of gun deaths in Utah increased by 39% from 2006 to 2020 (the last year for which data are available). More than 400 Utahns a year die from gun violence. Suicide, domestic violence, homicide - the tragedy of gun violence is pervasive in Utah.

Guns are now the number one cause of death among children and teens in Utah and more Utahns are killed every year by bullets than by motor vehicles.

These undeniable facts show that the Republican super-majority in the Utah Legislature (created by shameless gerrymandering) has failed to protect Utahns from gun violence. In fact, Republicans have actually made the problem worse.

In 2021, the Republicans passed legislation allowing individuals to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, which ignored the vast majority of studies showing that permitless concealed-carry legislation brings more gun violence. Typically, states adopting permitless carry experience a 22% increase in gun homicides in the following three years.

Republican legislators seem much more interested in message bills than bills that would actually do something to protect Utahns against gun violence. This year’s example is HB219 - a so-called Second Amendment “sanctuary” bill.

The proponents of HB219 seem to believe that the Second Amendment does not permit limits on the right to possess a gun for individual self-defense. But even ultra-conservative U. S. Supreme Court justices such as Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh have explicitly rejected any such notion.

Just because a federal regulation “restricts” possession of a firearm or “requires individual licensure” does not mean that the regulation violates the Second Amendment. For example, Kavanaugh recently wrote in the Bruen case that, as part of a “shall-issue” licensing program, governments may require the applicant “to undergo ... training in firearms handling and in laws regarding the use of force, among other possible requirements.”

Over 80% of American adults agree that to conceal-carry, a gun owner should be required to pass a safety test, but HB219 would prohibit state and local employees from cooperating with any such federal programs, even though Justice Kavanaugh makes clear that they are perfectly compatible with the Second Amendment.

Does the Utah Legislature seriously think that it should determine what the Second Amendment means rather than the U.S. Supreme Court?

But the real question is “How many lives will HB219 protect from gun violence?”

The answer is that “message bills” such as HB219 don’t save any lives. Indeed, HB219 might actually cost Utah lives by prohibiting cooperation with constitutionally valid federal gun regulations that could save lives.

Instead of taking significant, effective action to prevent gun violence, Republican legislators tinker with existing legislation while leaving existing loopholes wide open. For example, this year’s HB225 would require the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification to inform local law enforcement when they learn through the background-check process that a restricted person is trying to buy a gun. That is certainly a positive step, but it is minor compared to the Republican legislators’ repeated refusal to close the private sale loophole that lets convicted felons and other dangerous individuals avoid a background check to begin with. (Polling shows that 90% of Utahns support closing that loophole.)

In contrast to the Republicans who refuse to take action to reduce gun violence, there are legislators who are trying to protect Utahns against gun violence. For example Rep. Andrew Stoddard has introduced safe storage legislation, HB354, which quickly died in committee.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe sponsored SB50, which would create a waiting period for delivery of an assault weapon. We all know how often assault weapons have been used in mass shootings, often purchased shortly before the shooting. But not even a week into the 2023 legislative session, the Republicans on the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee unanimously voted to kill SB50.

How many more Utahns will suffer death or serious injury from gun violence before the Republican super-majority in the Utah Legislature steps up to its duty to protect our safety by adopting effective gun regulations that are clearly permissible under the Second Amendment?

| Courtesy Ed Rutan, op-ed mug.

Edwin Rutan, Park City, is a member of the board of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah. He was the city attorney for Salt Lake City for 10 years until he retired in 2013.