The History of Utah’s Efforts to Enact Gun Control Legislation

Gun Rights

Firearms have been a source of debate in the United States for decades due to the abnormally high amount of gun violence in the country. Recently, the New York Times reported guns surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children, with at least 145 mass shootings in 2023, as of April 11.

Utah has similarly high rates of gun violence — specifically gun suicides, in which the state ranks ninth in the country. Utah also ranked 36th in the strength of their gun laws, according to a study by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Beginnings

This debate has been going on for a while, even in Utah. In February 2000, an opinion piece was published in the Daily Utah Chronicle titled “Firearm Restriction Means Safer Society.”

Opinion columnist Ashley Watkins lamented that an initiative to ban concealed weapons in schools and churches failed. Watkins added that the push was backed by ASUU and their then-president, Ben McAdams, former U.S. Representative in Utah’s 4th congressional district.

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The Chronicle has published dozens more opinion pieces on gun control over the years, and Utah Democrats and organizations such as the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah have continued to advocate for legislation.

Despite this, most firearm-related bills that have passed in Utah in the last 20 years loosen restrictions, including a bill this year that states Utah will not adhere to certain federal gun control legislation.

Gun Control at the U

Specifically on the University of Utah’s campus, there have been several instances of gun violence, without much change in legislation.

UnsafeU, a group not affiliated with the U but designed to raise awareness about campus safety, has historically supported protests surrounding gun violence in Utah, such as March for Our Lives. 

The data is quite damning about the lethality of guns in relation to intimate partner violence,” said UnsafeU leadership in an email interview. 

They added that women are statistically more likely to have a gun used against them than protect them.

But the U has been limited by how they can restrict guns in the campus community by the state legislature, according to UnsafeU. In fact, firearms used to be banned on the U’s campus, until 2004, when the state legislature amended its firearm laws to make it clear the U could not ban guns on campus. The Utah Supreme Court upheld this decision in 2006.

This legislation stemmed from the attorney general at the time, Mark Shurtleff, issuing an opinion in 2001 that the U had no right to ban firearms on campus.

In addition, ASUU used to be more active in lobbying and advocating for policies they felt were beneficial, such as pushing for the concealed carry ban in schools and churches.

However, UnsafeU said “We understand through conversations across multiple administrations that this decline in activism is a direct correlation to Erica Anderson’s leadership. She has interpreted the university policy regarding employee political action during the legislative session to mean that ASUU members may not publicly speak or lobby on any piece of legislation.”

Gun Control Today

Today, the fight over restrictions on firearms in Utah is ongoing, most recently with two bills in the 2023 legislative session sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard. One, H.B. 89, would have required a five-day waiting period between the purchase of a firearm from a dealer and the delivery of it to the purchaser.

“There are a number of states that have these waiting period bills,” Stoddard said. “The studies have found that even a two-day waiting period really helps with reducing firearm suicides because it allows the person to be able to get out of that mentality.”

Suicides are the most prevalent form of gun violence in Utah. As of 2020, nearly 85% of gun deaths in Utah are suicides, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“It is tragic,” said Nancy Halden, communications director for the Utah Gun Violence Prevention Center. “It’s the carelessly stored weapons. It’s easy access at a moment when somebody’s going through a bad period in their life.”

The other bill Stoddard sponsored in the legislative session, H.B. 354, mandated safe storage of firearms in the state. The Utah GVPC, which aims to educate the public about gun violence, as well as advocate for legislation to prevent gun violence, backed both of Stoddard’s bills.

“One of the most successful things that we know we can do is we can put laws in place that require safe storage,” Halden said. “With our high number of guns and our high number of gun owners and families, we want to have a law in place that says you need to be storing that gun safely.”

Neither bill was passed, and the waiting period bill didn’t even make it past the rules committee.

“There just wasn’t an appetite for it,” Stoddard said.

He added that many of the firearm bills that do pass in Utah don’t have as much focus on the responsibility of the firearm owner, so “this was a giant leap.”

Halden explained she thinks part of the reason the debate has been going on for so long is the lack of data surrounding gun violence in the U.S. This is, in part, due to the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which prohibits the use of federal funds to advocate for or promote gun control. In 2018, an agreement was reached that would fund the research for the first time in over 20 years. 

“There was a 25-year gap in the research that we did on gun violence, and that really hurt us,” Halden said. “How can you solve a problem if you can’t even study it?”

Stoddard added that “firearm violence is something we are shockingly not up to date on” and that he believes making good policy relies on data.

“You don’t want to legislate on anecdotes, we don’t want to legislate on the one-off experience, but we want to make sure we have good data,” he said. 

Although the data says safe storage and waiting period bills reduce the likelihood of gun violence, Halden said they didn’t pass due to the “supermajority” of Republicans in Utah who “vote with the gun lobby.” She added this is not a unique year either — in 10 years of working with the Utah GVPC, she said many “good gun bills” have not passed.

“Our government should be a government where both sides get together and there’s compromise on both sides,” she said. “With a supermajority, you have no compromises.”

She added that the gun lobby opposing the safe storage bill and others like it is a relatively new phenomenon.

“When I was growing up, the NRA and organizations like that were very much about gun safety,” she said. “And there’s been a shift and they no longer are about safety. They’re only about selling guns.”

The same is true for gun owners themselves, which Halden attributes to a shift in the reason they purchase firearms. Before, they would buy them for sport and hunting, but now, they buy them to protect themselves and their homes, she said.

“The very top thing on any gun owner’s mind was safety because it’s a deadly weapon,” Halden said. “Now, the majority of people buy guns … because they’re afraid that somebody’s going to break into their house, and so that’s a very different mentality.”

The Future of Firearms in Utah

Still, with the rise in school shootings in recent years, Halden said more Utah gun owners are supportive of gun control bills. When the Parkland shooting happened in 2018, the March for Our Lives protest in Salt Lake City drew a crowd of about 8,000 — one of the largest demonstrations in Utah history.

“This is a family-oriented state,” Halden said. “This is a state where we value our children and our grandchildren, and yet this is happening. And I think people, even gun owners now, are starting to wake up to the fact that this idea that more guns are going to make us safer is just not panning out.”

Halden said over 90% of Utahns would like to see the private sales loophole — the ability to buy a gun without passing a background check — closed.

“The only obstacle [is] our lawmakers,” she said.

Another example is extreme risk protection orders, in which law enforcement or family members can ask that a gun can be temporarily taken from a gun owner when they are a danger to themselves or others.

“In Connecticut, where they’ve had the law the longest, they said for every 10 to 15 orders that are given, a life’s saved,” Halden said. “Close to 450 people die in Utah every year by gun violence, and if we could save one in 10 of those, that’s 45 people. That’s not insignificant.”

Even though they’ve been largely unsuccessful in passing gun control legislation in years past, both Stoddard and Halden are resolute in their ambitions.

“I’ll keep running them,” Stoddard said. “Firearms are a huge part of our children and teenager deaths, and we need to address it accordingly. We regulate things that are far less harmful in terms of death, and I think it’s time to move on into this arena.”

Halden said that people often question why she continues to advocate for gun control when there is rarely meaningful legislation passed in Utah, and she again referenced the changing tides in terms of Utah gun owners’ feelings toward gun control.

“More and more gun owners see that in other states, they have these laws, they have lowered gun violence rates and then they’re like, ‘Why can’t we have this?’” she said. “This is just common sense.”

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@caelrobertsnews

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