ST. GEORGE – A Utah lawmaker is proposing a bill that would mandate firearms be securely locked up when not in use. The argument for the measure is that by reducing access to firearms in homes, it can help reduce instances of youth suicide and school violence.
“This bill singles out the storage of guns for criminalization,” Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said before the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on July 18. “It ignores the fact that Utah firearms owners are extremely responsible with their firearms.”
The exact language of the bill is not yet available as Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, is still drafting it. During last week’s presentation to introduce the general purpose of the bill before the interim committee, Weight said she was looking for suggestions and observations.
“We know that most of the guns that kids have access to come from their homes,” Weight said in a prepared statement before the committee. “We also know, from gun enthusiasts themselves, that responsible gun owners secure their firearms when they are not in use. These owners have provided the standards for safe and responsible gun storage.”
The proposed law also follows recommendations from the Utah School Safety Commission, Weight said.
A former teacher of over 30 years, Weight said she has witnessed students increasingly discuss incidents of gun-related injuries or death close to home. With increasing frequency, Weight said she was involved in school counseling addressing the loss of students who committed suicide using a gun. When a school shooting was reported, she saw the students “incorporating the potential of gun violence in their school lives.”
Introducing the proposed legislation this far ahead of the next legislative session was intended to promote discussion, as well as get teachers and students to comment on it during the summer, Weight said.
Specifically, the legislation would require firearms to be secured in some manner with the safety on, require firearms dealers to provide information to buyers describing firearms storage requirements and provide a penalty for gun owners who fail to properly store their firearms under the proposed law. Keeping a firearm in the trunk of a vehicle wouldn’t count toward the gun being properly stored.
Speaking in support of the measure was 17-year-old Brayden Hoehne who attends Woods Cross High School in Woods Cross, Utah.
Hoehne said he wasn’t so naive as to think the proposed law would prevent all future gun deaths, yet believed it could help prevent some.
The teen shared experiences he had working in suicide prevention. One of those experiences involved his best friend who had planned to kill himself.
“I found myself looking in the face of my best friend through the tears as he told me of his plan to take his life. That’s why I am here today, because I’m worried one day my friends won’t talk to me. I’m worried one day I won’t see the signs.”
Making it mandatory for people to lock up their guns is a small price to pay in regard to the value of a life, Hoehne said.
“I support the concept of responsible storage, but we need to be careful to not believe that it will be a panacea,” Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said. “We need to be careful to understand this is a complex issue.
Addressing mental health and removing the stigma surrounding issues of depression and having suicidal thoughts need to be a part of the discussion, Thatcher said. People need to stand up and share their experiences with others so they realize they aren’t struggling in isolation, he said.
Deborah Gatrell, a high school teacher with the Granite School District, said that up to 86 percent of Utah suicides are committed with firearms, with around half of the state’s youth suicides being committed in the same manner.
“They’re accessing (firearms) at home because they are not properly secured.”
Gatrell also said that in many cases, suicide is an impulsive act, to which Thatcher replied she was
Suicides tend to be committed within 15 minutes of their consideration, Thatcher said. Statistics show that the suicide can be averted if there is no way to go through it.
“One of the keys to impacting the suicide rate is limiting access to lethal means.”
Gatrell also addressed school shootings. She mentioned teachers who are thinking of retiring early or seeking jobs outside of teaching due to the high levels of anxiety the increasing potential of school shootings is creating.
Gatrell recounted how one teacher in her school gets anxious each time the PA system sounds because she fears it’ll be warning of a shooting. In another instance, a student in the school was pulled out of class due to reportedly having a weapon in his backpack – which he did.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, asked about how the law would apply to conceal carry permit holders. Weight said that was the type of question she wanted brought up during the bill’s drafting process so it could be addressed.
“I consider concealed weapons training and CCW permit guidelines to be valid and people who have those know the training and are aware of all the circumstances of when they have the gun or when its under their supervision,” Weight said. “So I want to be honorable to the thinking behind that.”
Committee chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, asked how the law would address hunters in the field, whether they would be required to lock up their guns in some fashion while driving. It is an issue Weight said she’s looking at.
“My dad was an avid road hunter,” Ispon said. “He’d be spinning in his grave over this.”
Because the bill is still being drafted, local law enforcement officials couldn’t speak to the idea of making securing firearms mandatory. However, they nonetheless encourage people to be smart with their firearms.
“We just always encourage gun owner responsibility, regardless of the law,” St. George Police officer Lona Trombley said.
As a part of promoting firearms safety, the St. George Police Department offers free gun locks to the public. Anyone who wants a gun lock can go to the Police Department at 265 N. 200 East in St. George and ask for one, Trombley said.
“I think its a good discussion to have,” Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said Monday, adding that educating the public about firearms and firearms safety is also important.
Educating children about firearms, especially when they’re young, can help take the mystery out of them and therefore help avert any potentially fatal or otherwise injury-inducing act of curiosity later on. It is a practice he’s maintained in his own family, the sheriff said.
“I do think people be should responsible with their guns and should secure them,” Pulsipher said.
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