SALT LAKE CITY — Meg Walter is tired of worrying about her children at school or what movie theater is safe. She’s tired of looking for exits in grocery stores.
“I think about shootings everywhere I go,” she said.
Walter, Silicon Slopes marketing director, said she’s done feeling tired and sad, and a red flag law in Utah would be a good first step toward curbing gun violence. Red flag laws allow courts to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Guns were top of mind Wednesday for the Utah Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, which devoted its entire meeting to the issue as it relates to murder, suicide, domestic violence and schools.
Utah lawmakers have twice rejected proposed red flag laws but could consider one again next year.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said the problem with red flag laws is due process and taking away someone’s constitutional rights should be taken very seriously. He threw out an idea where law enforcement could hold people and have a mental health professional determine if they are an imminent threat to themselves or others.
“While I don’t hate it, I think it has potential,” he said.
Committee members were open to exploring the idea.
John Lott, founder and president of the Virginia-based Crime Prevention Research Center, told the committee red flag laws are not useful in preventing gun violence, including suicide. Only one of the 17 states that have such a law mentions mental illness, he said.
It’s not true that guns are the most successful way of committing suicide, listing other methods that he said are just as lethal. If people are actually concerned about suicide, taking a gun is not a very serious way of dealing with it, said Lott, the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” and “The War on Guns.”
“One need only ask Jeffrey Epstein, I guess, about whether or not those other methods are successful,” Lott said, referring to the wealthy financier and convicted sex offender who apparently hanged himself in a New York jail cell in August.
Democrats on the committee took issue with much of what Lott had to say, questioning his research and conclusions.
“What you’re saying doesn’t match a lot of other statistics that are out there,” said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City.
Guns were used in 51% of suicides in Utah in 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, 85% of gun deaths in the state were suicides.
A priority of Utah’s comprehensive approach to suicide prevention includes reducing access to lethal means, with a heavy emphasis on guns, Kim Myers, state suicide prevention and crisis services administrator, told the committee while showing the CDC statistics and other studies.
Utah ranks sixth in the country for suicide deaths, according the CDC, and is among six states in the Intermountain West that make up the so-called “suicide belt.” Someone in in dies by suicide every 16 hours, the agency’s numbers show.
A 2007 study showed there were four time more suicides with firearms in the 15 states with highest average household gun ownership compared to the six states with the lowest gun ownership. The combined populations of the two groups of states was about the same.
The committee also looked at the use of guns in domestic disputes.
Since 2000, 42% of Utah homicides were committed by a current or former intimate partner or family member, according to the Utah Department of Health. One-third of domestic violence perpetrators in the state die by suicide after committing the murder.
“To me this is not an issue of guns. This is an issue of safety. I don’t care about getting the guns. That is not why I am here. I want to talk to you about how to make this stop,” Jenn Oxborrow, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition executive director, told the committee.
The Salt County District Attorney’s Office has been asked to screen fewer and fewer cases of students possessing a weapon at school since 2012, including none last year or this year.
Will Carlson, chief policy adviser in the office’s justice division, said that’s not because kids stopped carry weapons but because of a change in the law. Charges of threat to a person or threat of terrorism often don’t fit those situations, he said.
Carlson suggested lawmakers create a specific offense for threats in school.
Lawmakers didn’t take positions on any specific proposals Thursday.