SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates seeking to combat domestic violence and suicide gathered with lawmakers at the state Capitol Tuesday, calling attention to proposals they say would keep victims safe and make sure weapons are out of reach when despair and anger run high.
Among the supporters is Taryn Hiatt, who survived several suicide attempts as a teenager and whose father took his own life. As an adult in a violent relationship, she again considered ending her life, she told reporters and others.
"I'm grateful for the support I had and the family members I reached out to, and that I didn't have access to something lethal," said Hiatt, the area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "If someone in your home is in crisis, let's put time and distance between them and the firearm so they have the opportunity to live."
A measure from Rep. Stephen Handy seeks to do just that. HB209 would create a path allowing family members to ask authorities to take guns away from someone who has recently made a threat, violated a protective order, shown a pattern of violence in the last year or threatened self-harm.
"There's a gap in the law when a person is threatening him or herself," the Layton Republican said. Some gun rights activists see the bill as a "gun grab," he acknowledged, but he said it carries the same due process standards as other types of protective orders.
"We're trying to carefully thread the needle between giving families a legal remedy and upholding and protecting a constitutional right," he said. Handy noted Indiana and Connecticut have had a 10 percent reduction in suicides after passing a similar law.
In a similar vein, another proposal from Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would build on an existing firearm safety program designed to educate gun owners and those around them on proper storage of the weapons and suicide prevention. HB17 would also provide coupons for gun safes to those who apply for concealed carry permits.
Eliason said his measure is informed by a November report finding that 85 percent of Utah gun deaths from 2006 to 2015 were suicides.
The takeaway from the report is that "the firearm they purchased to protect their family is very, very likely to be the firearm that takes the life of a family member," Eliason said. "When firearm owners come to that realization, I think they'll take the common sense steps."
The report also identified "very concerning" rates of Utahns killed by loved ones, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. In nearly 3 in 4 homicides of Utah women, the killer was a family member or intimate partner, according the analysis from the state of Utah and the Harvard School of Public Health.
A proposal seeking to curb such deaths would boost GPS tracking for offenders convicted of domestic violence and those who are released from jail before trial. HB253 would give judges more guidance on issuing the ankle monitors and would require courts to report data on the cases to lawmakers. The technology has not been used to the extent it could, said bill sponsor Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy.
The measures also have the support of law enforcement.
Tom Ross, Bountiful police chief and president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, said that 30 years of police work have persuaded him that domestic violence "is the most damaging form of oppression that I can ever think of in society," because it starts with the premise of love and then morphs into control and fear. "The toll is deeper and I think the pain is more significant," he said.
The harm is especially apparent in indigenous communities, said Moroni Benally with Restoring Ancestral Winds. His group is one of 13 tribal coalitions nationwide seeking to fight violence against native women, who are at a higher risk of homicide, he said.2 comments on this story
On Tuesday, the groups also cheered lawmakers' approval of a bill to strengthen protections for domestic and sexual violence victims after their aggressors are released from jail. HB19 has not yet been approved or rejected by the governor. They also gave their support to a measure still in the works that would direct judges to take greater consideration of domestic violence in child custody battles.
At the news conference, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said she is grateful for the advocates' recent help in establishing a risk assessment protocol for university officers responding to reports of violence and misconduct. The initiative is part of the school's response to the death of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, killed on campus in October by a man she briefly dated.