SALT LAKE CITY — Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Friday he believes it's time for Utah lawmakers to look at gun control in the context of school safety following last week's deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school.
But he does not think it is something legislators can tackle in the final two weeks of this year's session.
"I want to sort out what would be good policy versus what would just be window dressing," Niederhauser told reporters after being asked about restrictions proposed by Republican Florida officials opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Those include raising the age to buy firearms in Florida from 18 to 21, including semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 allegedly used by a teenager to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.
Other proposals in Florida include banning so-called bump stocks that permit semi-automatic rifles to fire faster and making it easier for law enforcement to keep firearms away from people with mental health problems.
Utah lawmakers have long been reluctant to consider restrictions on guns, even passing a contentious "constitutional carry" bill in 2013 that allowed concealed firearms to be carried without a permit.
That bill was vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, who said while he was passionate about Second Amendment rights, Utah's gun policy needed to send a message the state is "not the wild and woolly West."
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said other bills in the works may need to be rethought because of the impact they may have on youths.
He cited HB129, which would strengthen the state's “stand your ground” law that allows people to use force to defend themselves even if they could get away from danger. The bill has passed the House and is awaiting a Senate hearing.
"What’s the message we’re sending?" Davis asked. "Are we saying, 'Don’t try to arbitrate your problems with one another, that the ultimate solution is to shoot your way out of it?'"
Niederhauser said gun control is a "very controversial" issue in Utah.
"Let's face it," he said. "We've been big advocates of the Second Amendment. I know that troubles some folks. For the Legislature now to take that on and come up with a solution in the last two weeks of the session is a big ask."
Because it would be difficult to address those issues "substantively" with less than two weeks left in the 45-day session, Niederhauser said they would likely have to wait until the legislative interim and go before the 2019 Legislature.
That "may be prime time" to talk about gun control, he said, a discussion that would "probably be focused on the context of school safety, because that’s where I think our biggest vulnerabilities are."
While there may be many solutions being proposed, Niederhauser said it's not clear what would make a difference.
"Is it going to be a background check? Is it going to be something else? That’s something we need to carefully move ahead with," he said.
What is clear is that lawmakers are feeling the pressure to act as mass shootings continue to occur.
Sen. Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he feels a sense of urgency after the latest deaths.
"I feel that personally," Adams said. "How would you not feel that?"
He said the question is finding what works.
"All of us would like to stop it. There's no one that wouldn't. The question is, what does," Adams said.
The majority whip didn't disagree that lawmakers already have had time to address the issue.
"I'm not going to argue that. We need to look at it now," Adams said. He said the issue of keeping guns out of the hands of those with mental illness was talked about by the governor's Teen Suicide Prevention Task Force.
"That's an issue most people can agree on," he said.
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, who is serving as the temporary Senate majority leader, recalled growing up at a time when every pickup truck in his high school parking had a hunting rifle in the back window.
The Florida shooter "showed lots of weakness that maybe should have been caught," Van Tassell said. "I just think we’ve all got to be more vigilant."