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Opinion: Are Republicans hiding behind an absolutist view of the Second Amendment?

Utah gun safety laws struggle to make progress amid Second Amendment absolutists. We need more unity to protect our community

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A group of students stand together and one girl holds a sign that reads “Protect kids not guns!! Fix your priorities!”

East High School students protest gun violence during a walkout at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 27, 2022. Many are calling for more gun safety laws like higher age requirements, red flag laws and background checks.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This week we are witnessing the mourning of the families, classmates and friends of the 21 gun violence victims in Uvalde, Texas. We continue to reel from the massacre of 10 in Buffalo, New York. And now, another gunman took five lives at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Our nation is grieving. And our grief needs to move us to action. We do not want to live in a society where we must “harden” all public spaces — that is not freedom.

We can do much more here in Utah to keep our children safe. Unfortunately, Utah Republican elected officials are moving us in the wrong direction regarding gun safety. It’s time they stop hiding behind an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment as a shield for their lack of responsibility.

How many lives will continue to be lost by claiming the Second Amendment is an absolute right?

It is not an absolute right, as evidenced by the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller, authored by conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. While the Heller decision declares individuals have the right to own weapons, it also states that the right to bear arms can be regulated. Justice Scalia wrote, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”

Yet too many Utah Republicans ignore this guidance when it comes to the Second Amendment.

Just last session, on a party-line vote, Republicans in the state Legislature stripped away a critical safety measure that I had put in place to require background checks for all weapons sold at gun shows held in Salt Lake County facilities. Before my administrative change, background checks were only required for purchases made through a licensed dealer, leaving private transactions at the gun shows exempt from background checks.

I had forced new gun show contracts to include background checks for all, essentially closing the “gun show loophole.” It was a workable administrative change, and 13 gun shows have been hosted successfully with the policy in place. Legal gun owners were able to purchase guns, and the background check process was in place to stop any violent offenders.

Regularly, domestic abusers and other people prohibited from owning guns try to buy guns in Utah — and background checks stop them. Each year, the background check system prevents more than 150 sales to convicted felons and over 160 sales to domestic abusers in Utah. My policy ensured these same people couldn’t simply bypass the background check system by buying guns at gun shows from private dealers.

Still, Republicans passed SB115, which took away the authority of any local government in Utah to pass reasonable gun safety laws, targeted at my policy on background checks. Bill sponsor Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, Republican leadership and Republican members of the Legislature voted to allow weapons to be sold to criminals when reasonable measures had been put in place to stop those sales.

The action I took to keep Salt Lake County residents safe alarmed Second Amendment absolutists to the point that they doubled down on their authority to “preempt” local elected officials from acting to benefit their communities. Shockingly, Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council voted to support this bill, in essence further empowering the Legislature to limit local authority.

I implore my elected Republican colleagues in Utah to change their positions and move toward enacting gun safety measures and allowing local leaders to do the same. We need universal background checks, waiting periods, to raise the legal age to purchase a gun to 21, extreme risk protection orders (also known as red flag laws) and a ban on large-capacity magazines. No one solution will solve this crisis, just like no single person can, but these solutions have broad public support.

We need courage from political leaders in this state to put our children and community safety above party and to stop hiding behind an absolutist view of the Second Amendment.

Jenny Wilson is mayor of Salt Lake County.