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Two Utah gun bills — including 'Lauren's Law' — stall, while 2 others advance to House floor

SALT LAKE CITY — Days after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, Utah lawmakers had a busy morning Wednesday deciding what gun legislation would get a chance at a vote on the House floor.

While two bills survived and received an endorsement from a House committee, two others sponsored by Democrats stalled, including "Lauren's Law," a bill inspired by the murder of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, and HB87, a bill that would have criminalized unsafe storage of firearms that result in injury or death.

Along with voting to table HB87, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted to hold "Lauren's Law," HB190, which would create liability for people who lend their firearms to someone who later uses it to commit a felony.

The sponsor of "Lauren's Law," Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, drafted the bill after he "felt I had to do something" after the October death of McCluskey, a communications major and track athlete who was shot to death by a parolee she had recently stopped dating after she learned he was a sex offender who had given her a fake name, police said.

Melvin Rowland, 37, killed McCluskey on campus before taking his own life as police closed in. University of Utah police said he borrowed the gun from a friend, saying he wanted to take his girlfriend target shooting.

"This bill does nothing to infringe on a person's right to own a gun," Stoddard said. "What it does is encourage responsible gun ownership."

McCluskey's family did not attend Wednesday's committee meeting.

The sponsor for HB87, Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, said she's pushing the legislation after she, as a teacher, has watched the "school climate shift" from an environment that encourages learning and "community," to a place focused on "fear, defense" and "armed teachers."

"I wanted to think about something that would add another layer to asking and pleading for safe (gun) storage to give a little more assurance to students and teachers in schools that more guns would actually be secure," Weight said. "A lot of people would benefit from that little legal nudge."

But both bills stalled after representatives from the National Rifle Association and the Utah Shooters Sports Council spoke in opposition.

Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the NRA, called proposed legislation inspired by McCluskey's death "clearly the proverbial slippery slope setting the stage" for anti-gun policies and would "impose liability on an owner of a firearm that is criminally misused, even if the owner had no knowledge, no intent, no fault, no negligence or no culpability in the crime."

"This is a classic anti-gun tactic of shifting responsibly from the criminal to the law-abiding firearm owner," Judy said. "HB190 takes Utah one step down the path away from individual accountability and personal responsibility. This bill will set up firearm owners to be targets of litigation in an already overly litigious society."

Judy also opposed Weight's bill, saying it would also unfairly "criminalize" gun owners rather than focusing efforts on suicide awareness. "That's where the focus should be, not on gun control," he said.

It's unclear whether the bills will be given another shot at advancing to the full House, though Stoddard said after the vote that he's hopeful he'll be able to tweak the bill to address concerns.

"I'm optimistic that it wasn't killed," Stoddard told reporters after the committee vote. "I do think there is something we can agree on, and I look forward to working on it and bringing it back."

Meanwhile, two gun-related bills sponsored by Republicans and supported by gun advocates received unanimous endorsements from the House committee and now advance to the House floor for consideration.

They included HB17, a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, that encourages education on safe firearm handling and storage and HB152, a bill sponsored by Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, that clarifies Utah's law that allows spouses, blood relatives and other people who live with a gun owner to voluntarily surrender a firearm to law enforcement if the cohabitant believes the owner is at risk of harming others or himself or herself.

Eliason said his bill focused "exclusively on an educational approach" to the safe storage of guns and imposes no restrictions. It also appropriates a one-time $500,000 and an ongoing $100,000 for gun safety programs and to finance a coupon program to help finance Utahns' purchases of biometric gun safes.

Eliason told a story of how he recently visited with a neighbor who showed him his new 9 mm handgun. Eliason told of how he "shared some statistics" with his neighbor about guns and suicide, and "he looked at me and says, 'I should probably have this locked up.'"

"I believe when people hear these messages, responsible gun owners … will take the steps to secure their firearms," Eliason said.

Maloy's bill also received easy support from the House committee. The committee's chairman, Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry and a Utah Highway Patrol trooper, lauded the bill, saying he saw the current law in action "just this weekend" after he said someone surrendered a firearm to law enforcement.

"This actually works," he said.

Before lawmakers unanimously voted to endorse the bills from Eliason and Maloy, gun owner advocates expressed their support.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, credited the bills for acting as "carrots" rather than "sticks" to encourage gun safety.