SALT LAKE CITY — Republican lawmakers have decided they're not going to wait to tackle at least some gun and school safety issues, even though there are only eight days left in the legislative session.
"We're going to try to do as much as we can," House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Monday, including considering a so-called "red flag" law that would allow firearms to be seized from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he is putting together legislation for this session that would ensure every school has armed personnel patrolling the grounds.
Hughes said other proposals, such as raising the age to be able to buy an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle like the one police say was used by the teenager charged in the recent deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school, will take more time.
But rather than wait until the 2019 Legislature, the speaker said he wants to continue to work on gun and school safety issues, and then ask Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special legislative session.
The sudden flurry of activity comes after lawmakers started talking late last week about the need to address gun control and school safety in the aftermath of the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Last Friday, Niederhauser said it was time for lawmakers to talk about gun issuesbut any action would likely happen until next year. He said it was a "big ask" for legislators to take on such a controversial issue when the session ends March 8.
Hughes said he started bringing together a group that includes gun rights advocates to start looking at what could pass now as well as later. The speaker said he "wouldn't rule anything out."
Later Friday, the Utah Shooting Sports Council sent out an email blast warning that "big-name, formerly pro-gun Republicans are caving in and advocating California-style gun control. Things are not OK here in Utah," and asking for help contacting lawmakers.
The council's chairman, Clark Aposhian, told the Deseret News on Monday that he believes lawmakers want to be seen as doing something, but their actions may only be a distraction.
"There shouldn't be anything taboo," said Aposhian, a member of the House group looking at gun issues, said. "But I think a lot of these ideas are going to be found without merit."
He said council members are worried there could be new restrictions on guns in Utah.
"Of course we are (concerned) when we have Republican, conservative so to speak, (and) for the most part good Second Amendment supporters supporting this or considering supporting this," Aposhian said. "It absolutely concerns us."
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, is having a bill drafted to create an "extreme risk protective order," also known as a "red flag" law, that allows a court to be petitioned for an order to remove guns from situations deemed dangerous.
Three states have such laws — California, Washington and Oregon, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that says the laws can be used to prevent suicide as well as gun violence like mass shootings.
The Senate president said he is working with school officials on his bill. While "watershed changes" will take more time, Niederhauser said he believes school security is something that can get done by the end of the session.
"We want to support our local school boards in making a safer zone around their schools," he said. "There's already armed security at many of our schools, but we need to talk about getting it at all our schools."
Niederhauser said he was not talking about arming teachers, something pitched by President Donald Trump.
"I would never want to mandate the arming of teachers. Many teachers don't feel comfortable carrying (guns)," he said. "It's a huge responsiblity carrying a gun. Let them teach, and then let's provide the security at the school."
Terry Shoemaker, associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, said “moms and dads are asking urgency (on school safety), appropriately.”
Presently, there is no specific state funding for school safety measures, although some districts use a portion of its per-pupil funding for that purpose.
The approaches range from school district contracts with local law enforcement agencies for the services of school resource officers to Granite School District, which has its own police department.
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said the district has had its own police force for 20 years. There is no state-specific funding, and the school board allocates a portion of its weighted pupil unit to pay for the 19-member force.
“The realities of school shootings and other threats to schools have only reinforced the notion and need of having armed and trained security in our schools,” Horsley said in a statement.
Shoemaker said Utah school districts are attempting to gather more information about successful approaches used elsewhere and talking with law enforcement officials.
“They’re leaning to very specific operational things they can do within schools, law enforcement patrolling, maybe the use of dogs, additional technology, surveillance, those kind of things. I think all of those are part of the discussions that are likely going on out there,” he said.
Beyond that, schools are also dealing with the human impacts of recent threats against schools and school shootings.
“Teachers and counselors are dealing with kids who are frightened. The tragedies of what occurred in Florida and elsewhere all across the nation, shootings that have happened in their own state, remind us that we are not necessarily immune from these possibilities," he said.
Shoemaker said that means "the students need reassurance and the parents need reassurance we’re doing what we can to help our children and help our communities feel safe.”
While the conversation is focused on immediate safety interventions, prevention is just as important, he said.
“If we’re not dealing with the mental health issues with our children, we’re not working on what I think is one of the most important elements of prevention. If we’re not paying attention to those things in our school system, and I believe we are, but we don’t have the resources to do it well,” he said.27 comments on this story
A House bill that would authorize the Utah State Board of Education to award more than $2 million matching grants to increase the number of school counselors in Utah elementary schools is now before the Senate.
The governor was in Washington, D.C., Monday, attending a meeting of the National Governors Association where he said most of the solutions to school shootings will come from the states, not the federal government.
"We look forward to working closely with legislative leadership on keeping our communities and schools safe," said Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards. "While acting quickly is important, getting this right is even more important."