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Utah lawmakers OK gun safety program with replica firearms in high schools

Attendees listen during a free gun safety and awareness class during the Rocky Mountain Gun Show at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015.
A display is shown at a gun safety and awareness class at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy in this Jan. 3, 2015, file photo.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker’s proposal to offer teens a firearm safety course at school received early support from a House committee.

HB258 would create a pilot program to provide a half-semester gun safety class for students in grades nine through 12. The bill would require school districts chosen by the Utah Board of Education to contract with training providers to supply materials and curriculum for the program.

“I think it’s important that our school kids have an opportunity to learn about firearm safety,” bill sponsor Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The course would be part of physical education and carry a half-credit. It would be elective for students who want the training, with parents able to prohibit their kids from taking it, Shipp said. During the program, students could only use replica, nonoperating firearms at school.

As a child, Shipp says he long awaited his chance to go hunting with his brothers and dad. He participated in a hunting safety program and started hunting at 12 years old.

“If you haven’t grown up in a family that does hunting or shooting, you don’t learn proper safety of firearms and many times these kids run into firearms — whether they’re at a friend’s home or wherever they are,” Shipp said.

He said it’s important for kids to understand the Second Amendment and to learn state laws governing firearms.

“It also has suicide prevention involved in there, because if somebody comes upon a firearm not understanding how to safely handle it, that could create a problem with potentially having accidents and so forth,” Shipp said.

Through the course, Shipp said the Division of Wildlife Resources would be able to discuss hunter safety requirements with students, who could visit a shooting range and complete firearm safety training and the shooting section of the hunter’s safety program.

When asked who would administer the course in schools, Shipp said he’s heard from those who already teach gun safety courses who would be interested.

“Education is always better than ignorance. Children are growing up in homes that do not actually teach firearm safety,” said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.

Sara Jones, with the Utah Educators Association, said the group is concerned that the bill “creates a very detailed, very prescriptive curriculum for an elective course.”

She said gun safety courses are better handled on the local level than through the Legislature, as school districts know the needs of their communities.

Schools also prohibit replica weapons, Jones noted. She also expressed concern about a new program during the pandemic.

“Is this really a year for a pilot program for one more expectation for one more thing to be placed on schools and educators this year?” Jones asked.

Barbara Gentry, a board member on the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said those who aren’t trained as educators shouldn’t be able to teach something as “sensitive” as firearm safety.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, compared the program to teaching teenagers how to drive.

“Which potentially can be a really dangerous activity. But we give them instruction on how they do that, they comply with those requirements, and we never think about doing that with firearms,” Snow said.

He said he also learned important firearm safety concepts as a child in hunter safety training such as never pointing a gun at something you don’t want to shoot, and treating every gun as if it’s loaded.

The bill received a 6-3 favorable recommendation from the committee and will move to the full House for consideration.