Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson took his concerns about juveniles and firearms to the state Sentencing Commission this past week, asking the body to consider a recommendation to state lawmakers for tougher laws.
"There cannot be a justification for a criminal classification that is the same as littering or growing one's weeds too high," Anderson told the commission.
Under Utah law, a juvenile in possession of a handgun is guilty of only a class B misdemeanor. The offense classification is the same if an adult provides a minor with such a weapon, or if a parent knows that someone younger than 18 is in possession of a dangerous weapon.
Anderson thinks the penalties for such crimes should be third-degree felonies and has been saying so since July, when a 13-year-old boy shot and injured another teen in Liberty Park one Sunday afternoon. In the adult criminal justice system, third-degree felonies are punishable by a sentence of between zero and five years in prison.
He's pitched the idea to lawmakers through a letter and held a community forum on the topic of guns at the city library last month.
Statistics from the Salt Lake City Police Department show that between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004, police arrested 102 juveniles who were in the illegal possession of a gun. But, Anderson noted, none of those kids could have been held in juvenile detention simply for being in possession of that weapon, because the criminal classification is so low that detention centers won't take the offenders.
"That's absolutely the wrong message," Anderson said.
Commission members, who are judges, defense attorney, prosecutors and policymakers, were sympathetic to Anderson's concerns but wondered aloud about the practicality of bumping up the criminal classification.
"It will be the first case under our law where it would be a felony just by virtue of age," said Brian Namba, a deputy district attorney for Davis County who prosecutes juvenile crimes. "I'm a little hesitant to open that door."
Others raised questions about the need to delineate in law the difference between possession and use of a handgun, and the differences between guns in urban and rural settings.
Mike Sibbett, chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, told Anderson there was no question that mixing of guns and kids — particularly those who get involved in gangs — is an issue that needs attention. But, he said, any solution will come with a financial costs to cities, counties and to the state, and should be considered in any discussions.
The commission took no formal action at the meeting, despite Sibbett's statement that the commission might consider forming a subcommittee to examine the issue.
Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, commended the mayor's thinking but said a more narrowly focused change — one that targeted juveniles who illegally possess a handgun in a public place — might better address the mayor's concerns while also attack the problem with a tougher penalty.