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SALT LAKE CITY — After it died on the clock last year, a Utah bill to close a loophole in state law that has allowed Salt Lake County to require vendors at gun shows in facilities owned by the county to conduct background checks is again making its way through the Utah Legislature.
Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, and Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, are sponsoring SB115, this year's iteration of Maloy's HB271, which cleared the House on a party-line vote of 55-15 during the 2020 session but stalled in the Senate after Senate leaders declined to prioritize it along with a slew of other firearm-related bills. Another iteration of the bill, HB 76, also died in 2021 after it cleared the House but never reached a hearing in the Senate."
Maloy, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, vowed last year to bring the bill back in 2022.
It cleared its first hurdle in this year's session Tuesday when the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee voted 5-2 to favorably recommend it to the full Senate.
Sen. Chris Wilson said legislators' "most important duty" is to "preserve Utah's freedoms, including the freedom to bear arms without unnecessary government interference."
"We are committed to protecting the Second Amendment rights defined in the U.S. Constitution by our founding fathers," Chris Wilson said. "In recent years, local governments have attempted to exploit loopholes in state law to regulate firearms at conventions, not acting in the best interests of all Utahns."
The bill seeks to declare with more clarity that the state has total control over gun laws in Utah — so no city or county can work around it like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson did in December of 2019 when she announced an "operational change" that mostly affected gun shows at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Mountain America Expo Center and Salt Lake County Equestrian Park. Before the change, sales by licensed dealers at gun shows required buyers to pass background checks, but private sales were not subject to them.
"I support the rights of lawful gun owners, but the risk of a private transaction resulting in the sale of a firearm to someone with a violent criminal record or history of domestic abuse is a risk we cannot accept in Salt Lake County," the mayor said at the time.
Maloy told lawmakers Tuesday the aim of the bill is to "protect the state by preempting those kinds of ordinances and laws that are above and beyond what the state has authorized and passed."
"So if you want to talk about background checks or any kind of gun control measure, if those could get passed by the state ... then the preemption law would cover those as well," Maloy said. "But they're not in state code, and so the preemption law prevents cities and counties from doing that kind of thing."
Some Democrats argued against advancing the bill to the Senate floor, including Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who pointed to a shooting earlier this month on a West Valley City sidewalk that left two Hunter High School freshman football players dead and a sophomore football player hospitalized.
"Let me remind this committee that in West Valley City ... three children were shot. Two of them shot to death. One of them is still in the hospital," Davis said.
Davis was interrupted and told to keep his remarks relevant to the bill itself. Davis argued it was relevant, saying the purpose of Salt Lake County's background check requirement is to ensure people with criminal backgrounds don't buy firearms "because they're forbidden by state law and federal law to own a weapon. So this only enforces — literally enforces — the state law."
Maloy pushed back against Davis' comments, saying "there's no way" anyone knows where the gun involved in the West Valley shooting came from "until law enforcement does their investigation."
"I really do not see where this discussion fits into what we're talking about here, which is preemption," Maloy said. "So I would just say we ought to keep focused on the bill, and if ... people would like to see a particular law in the state of Utah, it needs to be good for all of the people of Utah and not just certain areas. And get that bill passed into law, and then (the) preemption (law) will cover that as well."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson submitted a letter to the committee saying she opposed the bill.
"SB115 would repeal the ability of Salt Lake County to require private sale background checks," Wilson wrote in her letter. "This common-sense and potentially life-saving measure has been effectively implemented with no impact to the gun shows, purchasers and sellers."
The mayor argued "violent crime is at an all-time high in our county, and sadly mass shootings have become a regular and heartbreaking occurrence in our nation's communities.
"While background checks at gun shows are not a complete preventative tool, they do prevent known criminals from buying weapons from private sellers when in Salt Lake County facilities," the mayor's letters continued.
"It is an overreach by the state legislative body to mandate specific conditions that impede the effective, safe operations of county facilities," Wilson wrote. "It is critical that Salt Lake County maintain local control over its venues and remain the steward of its facilities."
Ultimately the bill was given the approval to advance to the Senate floor, with five Republicans voting in favor of it and two Democrats voting against.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the Utah House of Representatives passed HB271, the 2020 version of the firearm preemption law, in 2021. Another version of that bill passed the House in 2021.