SALT LAKE CITY — After her husband was charged with domestic violence, a Florida woman who said she feared for her life turned his guns over to police.
Courtney Irby, 32, then found herself in jail for nearly a week in June as she awaited possible formal charges of theft and burglary.
About 2,000 miles west of Lakeland, Florida, such a case is unlikely to play out in Utah, according to Gary Giles, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.
"From an officer's standpoint, we're not going to arrest her. Nobody's taking her to jail by any means," said Giles, who is also chief of police in Orem. "It's not a criminal intent."
Others see it differently, including Steve Burton, director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"In Utah, I think it would clearly qualify as burglary," he said. "I would be very surprised if there was this idea where you could go into somebody else's residence — an estranged husband or an estranged wife — and take their property."
Irby's ordeal has sparked national outcry from those advocating for gun safety and victim's rights, while also drawing criticism from gun rights advocates. On July 3, prosecutors charged her with a single misdemeanor count of trespassing and alleged she may have intended to sell or pawn the weapons. She initially spent six days in jail and later made bail after she gave her estranged husband's assault rifle and handgun to police.
Joseph Irby was spending one day in jail at the time, accused of ramming into her car after a June 14 divorce hearing. Police say the conflict began with a shouting match after the hearing and continued after they got in their cars, when he used his vehicle to strike her back bumper several times, running her off the road.
When Courtney Irby turned in his weapons, she told a responding officer that “she feared for her life” and believed he wouldn’t turn in his guns himself, according to her arrest report. Since she had been recently granted a protective order, he was required to relinquish his guns.
She said she entered her husband’s apartment through a locked door without his permission and took the guns to a police station.
In Utah, whether or not a person can lawfully give police someone else’s guns may come down to their living situation.
Under a new law passed this year, people older than 18 who live with a gun owner can legally hand over the weapon to law enforcers out of concern the owner will use it to harm someone. The law enforcement agency can hold the weapons for 60 days or possibly longer under HB152, but an owner can retrieve it from police in the meantime.
The law does not allow spouses like Irby or others who don't live with the gun owner to legally hand over their weapons, noted Rep. Cory Maloy, the Lehi Republican who sponsored the measure.
“The purpose of it is to provide a safety valve in a home where tensions could be to the point where the people, the adults living in the home, it would be smart if they could just get the firearms out of the house,” Maloy said. "If we expand it to allow other people to do the same that don't live in the home, then that opens up a whole Pandora's box of potential abuse of the spirit of that law."
The 2019 law creates a danger for survivors of domestic violence, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. Those they live with can recover their weapons from police at a time when tension has escalated, which is likely to increase their risk of being killed, Oxborrow said.
"What we need is a statutory process for safely relinquishing a firearm when there's a high risk of lethality or suicide," she continued. "We've got to continue this conversation."
Other states, including nearby Nevada and New Mexico, have created such a legal path, Oxborrow said.
If prosecutors in Utah did choose to move forward with theft and burglary charges against someone in Irby's situation, the case could hinge on details like when the guns were purchased, Burton said. If they were bought while the couple is married, both have a claim to the property.
After her husband’s arrest, Courtney Irby was granted a temporary injunction for protection. Federal law bars those under a domestic violence restraining order from possessing guns, but enforcement falls to local agencies.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said a person in Irby’s situation could avoid arrest by calling police and asking them to retrieve the weapons. Irby’s husband could have possibly decided not to return to his apartment and instead have a friend retrieve the guns so he would not violate the law, he added.
“That's literally what I did. I had to separate myself for a year,” Aposhian said, referencing a 2013 protective order against him that was followed by charges of domestic violence, threats and criminal mischief. Each count was ultimately dismissed as part of a plea deal.
Before Courtney Irby was criminally charged, a Democratic Florida lawmaker, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, sent a letter to that state’s attorney to urge against prosecution. It would send a message that victims will be punished, Eskamai wrote, and local law enforcers lack the tools to enforce the restrictions.
It's one gap a Republican Utah lawmaker says he tried and failed to address at the state Legislature earlier this year and in 2018. Rep. Stephen Handy, of Layton, said the unsuccessful measure sought to limit domestic violence deaths, suicides and mass shootings.
The bill had support from groups seeking to combat domestic violence and suicide, but gun rights advocates said it would conflict with due process for the owners who often do not face a criminal charge.
HB209 would have directed judges to allow police to temporarily retrieve the gun of someone deemed a risk, and a hearing would be held within two weeks to determine whether to extend the order.
Handy said he probably won’t bring the measure back next year because opposition is still too strong.
"It will pass sometime in Utah," he said. "But what I’m really concerned about and afraid of what's going to happen, is that we're going to have to a have a school shooting or something and the public will finally rise up and say, 'Legislature, why haven't you passed this?'"
Contributing: Associated Press