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SALT LAKE CITY — Mass shootings across the country, including one at a Fourth of July parade in Illinois this week that left seven people dead, has rekindled the debate about gun laws.
Congress passed the country's most significant gun safety legislation in the wake of deadly shootings at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and a Buffalo, New York, grocery store. A number of congressional Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, joined Democrats in passing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
The bill includes grants for states to create and administer extreme risk or red flag laws that allow immediate family members or police officers to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from those who appear to pose a serious threat to themselves or others.
The Republican-led Utah Legislature has rejected proposals — introduced by a GOP lawmaker — for a red flag law three times in recent years.
But a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Utahns overwhelmingly support red flag laws.
The survey also found strong support across the board for other measures aimed at curbing gun violence, including raising the legal age to buy firearms to 21, requiring background checks on all gun sales, and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Utahns seemed to have moved significantly on gun regulation since last year.
In an April 2021 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll conducted after unrelated killing sprees in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, killed 18 people, about two-thirds of Utahns favored universal background checks. But less than a third supported prohibiting assault-style weapons. Only a small percentage didn't support any gun control laws.
Utah lawmakers have long been reluctant to consider restrictions on guns, even passing a "constitutional carry" law that allows concealed firearms to be carried without a permit.
"I think the support for legislation on guns appears to be increasing over the past couple of years. It's an interesting dynamic for elected officials," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
"There's a clear appetite across party lines for something to happen. But in an election year, even though there is broad support there is still some hesitation from conservative lawmakers because their base is not quite there."
Some legislators, he said, worry that any chipping away at the Second Amendment could lead to an erosion of rights.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, called the poll results "good data" and said lawmakers could use it as they consider bills in the future.
"I think you're going to see legislation. We'll see how it plays out," he said. "I imagine there will be an effort to understand what is constitutional and what is not constitutional."
But Adams said he also wants to look at why mostly young men are behind deadly mass shootings. "If you could give some information on that, that would also be extremely valuable," he said.
Red flag laws
The poll shows 72% of Utahns favor laws that allow family members or police to use a court order to temporarily take guns from a person who is seen as a risk to themselves or others. Only 21% oppose red flag laws, while 7% don't know.
And backing for such laws spanned the political and ideological spectrum.
Among survey respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, 68% support red flag laws. Slightly more than half of those who consider themselves "very conservative" and nearly three-fourths of those who identify as "conservative" also voiced support.
Support among Democrats in the poll soared to 92%, while 8 in 10 Utahns who identified as "liberal" or "very liberal" also favor the law.
Moderates, too, expressed a high degree of support, coming in at 76% in the poll.
Despite the favorable poll results, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said after three tries he wouldn't bring up red flag laws again, even if he could, because the Legislature lacks the political will to pass them. Handy, who was ousted in the Republican Party Convention earlier this year, said the biggest hang-up over the legislation, which never passed out of committee, was agreeing on a definition of due process in taking away a person's guns.
"We negotiated everything in the world that seemed to make it palatable, but we could never get an agreement on due process," he said.
Several Utah GOP congressmen cited the same concern in voting against the recently passed federal bipartisan gun safety bill.
Raising the gun purchasing age
Just days after an 18-year-old gunman used a semi-automatic rifle that he had purchased himself to kill 19 children and two teachers in Texas, Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen proposed raising the age of eligibility to buy a firearm in the state from 18 to 21.
At the time he unveiled the bill in late May, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde was the 27th school shooting to date this year, and at least 21 of those shootings were perpetrated by assailants under the age of 21.
"There should be no reason this doesn't pass the Utah Legislature. It's commonsense gun reform that will keep Utahns safe, and that's what we were elected to do," Kitchen, a Salt Lake City Democrat, said at the time.
More than three-fourths of Utahns apparently agree.
The poll found 79% of residents support raising the minimum age to buy a gun in the state to 21, while 20% are opposed and 2% don't know.
Like red flag laws, raising the gun purchasing age found broad bipartisan support in the poll.
Universal background checks
Among the gun control measures asked about in the survey, requiring background checks on all gun sales drew the highest support, with 90% of Utahns in favor, including 76% strongly in favor, and only 8% opposed.
While federal law calls for background checks for all gun sales by licensed dealers, it does not require background checks for firearms sold by unlicensed sellers, like those who sell guns online or at gun shows.
In 2019, Salt Lake County imposed an "operational change" that required vendors at gun shows in county-owned facilities to conduct background checks. The rule did not sit well with the Utah Legislature, which ended the practice by passing a law earlier this year declaring only the state — not cities or counties — can enact firearms regulations.
Again, the survey found broad support for universal background checks on gun sales regardless of political affiliation or ideology, gender or education level.
Assault weapons ban
Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines drew the least support among the possible gun laws.
Still, 60% of Utahns favor such a prohibition, while 37% are opposed.
Less than half of Republicans support banning those types of guns and ammunition, compared to nearly 90% of Democrats. The poll also found a sharp difference between conservatives and liberals on that issue.
Also, the survey showed women are more open than men to gun control measures.