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Salt Lake City Mayoral Candidates Field Gun Reform Questions At March For Our Lives Town Hall

Photo of candidates on stage.
Rebecca Ellis / KUER
Six of the eight candidates hoping to be the next Salt Lake City mayor fielded questions Monday evening on gun reform, Utah's high suicide rate, and school safety.

Gun violence remains a political issue nationwide. But, at the local level, there’s not a whole lot a Utah mayor can do to enact gun reform. 

The state, like more than 40 others, has a statute forbidding local governments from regulating firearms more stringently than the state. 

But that hasn’t stopped a group of civic-minded teenagers from calling on the Salt Lake City mayoral candidates to make reducing gun violence a key part of their platform. 

Members of a local chapter of anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives, the teens hosted a town-hall-style gathering Monday. There, candidates fielded questions on how they would stem Utah’s high suicide rate, encourage youth activism and keep schools safe — without over-policing them. 

“Obviously, there’s a law that prohibits the Salt Lake City mayor from passing any gun reform legislation,” says Daud Mumin, a recent graduate of West Jordan’s Copper Hills High School, who helped organize Monday’s event. “But there’s more than just legislation that needs to be done.” 

Six of the eight candidates vying to be Salt Lake City mayor showed up at the town hall, hosted at a coworking space downtown. All came with developing policies they say could reduce gun violence in the state. Utah has relatively few firearm mortalities, but one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation. 

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, said, in addition to maintaining Mayor Jackie Buskupski’s Commission Against Gun Violence, he would commit to creating “an Office of Violence Prevention that’s actually a permanent fixture in the Mayor’s office.”

“We truly can’t wait for somebody else to fix these problems for us,” he said. “We need to be taking every effort within our power as a municipality to ensure our residents are safe.”

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said one of her priorities as mayor would be to ensure schools in the district were staffed with social workers and school nurses that could monitor troubled youth. Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis vowed to ensure the positions for school resource officer would be filled only by “the best of the best of the best” in the police force. 

As gun-control legislation remains stalled in Congress, mayors across America have started pondering how to wield their municipal power to curb gun deaths, which reached a 50-year high in 2017, according to the New York Times. In April, roughly 50 mayors convened in Toledo, Ohio to discuss strategies for curbing gun violence from City Hall. After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, Mayor Bill Peduto passed a law restricting the use of assault-style weapons. The National Rifle Association promptly filed a lawsuit.

The candidates agreed that, if elected, each would hope to see more of the kind of youth activism on display that evening, pushing them to act decisively on gun control.

“You’ve been the most momentous thing that has happened [to] this movement toward curbing this gun violence,” Dabakis told the organizers. “And, with passion, you need to keep the pressure on.”

Rebecca Ellis is a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Brown University in 2018 with a Bachelor's in Urban Studies. In college, Rebecca served as a managing editor at the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, and freelanced for Rhode Island's primary paper, the Providence Journal. She has spent past summers as an investigator at the Bronx Defenders, a public defender's office in the Bronx, New York, and as a reporter at the Miami Herald, filing general assignment stories and learning to scuba dive.
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