Support for Federal Gun Laws Hard to Find in Utah

Jan 22, 2013

At a press conference on Jan. 16, President Barack Obama laid out his controversial gun control plan. He called for more stringent background checks and pushed Congress to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But the President acknowledge for new laws to be passed, he’ll need support from a majority of states, and that may be tough to find in Utah.

Mary Brown Malouf is the executive editor of the Salt Lake Magazine. While no one knows exactly how many individuals own a gun here, she points out just how loose the state’s gun regulations are in her recent article “Gun Loving Utah.” In their 2011 scorecard, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence dished out a solid 0 for the strength of Utah’s gun legislation.

She notes that Utah wasn't the only state to receive a 0 but says the state's gun laws coincide with the Second Amendment-based idea that it's an individuals constitutional right to own a firearm.

That constitutional right is exactly why the Washington County Republicans President Dale Era has created a proposal - and he hopes future legislation - to exempt Utah from federal gun laws and fine any federal agents who try to seize any guns.

However, the ACLU of Utah says the effort would be meaningless because Utah can’t overrule federal gun laws.

Senator Daniel Thatcher is studying the state’s current gun practices and he says unlike the United States Congress, it’s doubtful any major legislation concerning firearms will be seen at the 2013 Utah legislative session.

“Creating legislation in the face of tragedy you almost always get bad laws,” he says.

But Senator Thatcher says there could be a bill about sharing Utah’s mentally ill registry with other states or even a national database so individuals who shouldn’t have guns are less likely to get them.

Pro-gun groups including the National Rifle Association have long said that inadequate mental health care and violent images are more to blame for shooting rampages than guns. Utah Gun Collectors Association Board member Linda Evan agrees.

“It’s a people issue not a gun issue it’s not guns that kill people it’s people," she says.  "If they didn’t have a gun they’d steal it or use a bomb or a brick or a baseball bat. Come on here, people are sick and people need help”

But Dr. Scot Allgood, the Director of Utah State Universities Marriage and Family Therapy program, has a hard time blaming mass shootings like last month’s deadly attack in Newtown, Connecticut on mental illness.

“One of the things we know is that people in full blown mental disorders often are so disorganized they aren’t capable of doing something like this," he explains. "They’re so chaotic they can’t pull of something like this. So, when you look at someone who does something so calculated and cold, I have a hard time blaming that on the mental disorder.”

The NRA has called for an active national registry of the mentally ill to be created. Dr. Allgood says it’s an improbably plan.

“The problem is how do we begin to assess mental illness unless we run everyone through a psych evaluation before buying a gun," he says. "There’s lots of people that flat out should not own a gun. But how d owe begin to assess that and I don’t think we have very good answers for that right now.”

Each state keeps a list of people who have either been deemed by a court of law to be mentally unfit in relation to a crime or have been involuntarily committed to the state hospital. Yet, states don’t have to submit that information to National Instant Criminal Background Check System which is used to screen potential gun buyers.

“Here’s where the issue comes in:," says Sen. Thatcher, "if we have someone in Utah that’s diagnosed as a violent schizophrenic and is sentenced to treatment, unless they apply for a gun in Utah, they could leave the state and be able to pass a background check in another state”

Thatcher is currently researching whether or not Utah will share that information with other states.

While the United States Congress is looking to pass new gun laws, the state legislature is are only looking for clarification.

“We’re not adding any new gun laws, we’re not adding any new restrictions," Sen. Thatcher ensures. "Really, it’s going to change very, very little inside the state of Utah”