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SALT LAKE CITY — After two years of failed attempts, a Utah bill that clarifies only the state — not cities, counties or other local entities — can enact firearm regulations cleared a major legislative hurdle Thursday.
The Utah Senate voted 20-5 to approve SB115, with Democrats voting against. It now goes to the House for consideration — but the Senate was a hurdle previous versions of the bill had not survived in years past.
Upon final approval, the bill would close a loophole in state law that has allowed Salt Lake County to require vendors at gun shows county facilities to conduct background checks since the beginning of 2020.
In 2020, the proposal cleared the House on a party-line vote but stalled in the Senate after Senate leaders declined to prioritize it along with a slew of other firearms-related bills. Another iteration of the bill also died in 2021 after it cleared the House but never reached a hearing in the Senate.
Bill sponsors Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, and Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, have said they're pushing SB115 to preserve Utahns' freedoms and Second Amendment rights without "unnecessary government interference."
"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," Wilson said on the Senate floor on Tuesday, when it was up for an initial vote.
"The purpose of this bill is to clarify and protect citizens from local government gun regulations that contradict state law."
Wilson said current Utah law already prohibits cities and counties from enacting any firearm regulations on ownership, possession, transfer or transport of a gun.
"Local governments are prohibited from directly regulating firearms," Wilson said. "This bill makes it clear that local governments do not have authority to regulate firearms."
The bill declares that the Utah Legislature "occupies the whole field of state regulation of firearms" and makes clear that state and local government entities — including colleges, universities, public schools, cities, counties and other local entities — "may not enact or enforce a directive that violates" the state's authority over firearm regulation.
If a local government tries to regulate firearms, the bill would allow local government entities to be sued, and "ensures the local government is liable," Wilson said.
Democrats including Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, pushed back against the bill, calling it a "concerning" and "broad blanket prohibition." Kitchen expressed concern that it would prohibit cities from regulating "where a gun store, for instance, can be located."
"I think this is a pretty clear overreach from the state," Kitchen said.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she was "shocked" to learn rural counties including Duchesne and Millard counties have the state's highest rates of gun violence. She also pointed to a shooting last month on a West Valley City sidewalk that left two Hunter High School freshman football players dead and a sophomore football player hospitalized.
"I feel like we need to increase our responsibility, not decrease it," Riebe said.
While some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the bill would impact the state's suicide rate, Republicans pushed back, arguing a bill clarifying the state's authority over firearm regulation would not have an impact on suicide rates.
"The fact of the matter is most gun violence in the state of Utah is self-harm," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said. "That is a tragic fact and something we have been working on and something we have addressed in other bills. This bill will not have an impact on the suicide rate in the state of Utah."
SB115 now goes to the House, where previous versions have sailed through with broad support.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay