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Tragedy inspires effort to raise minimum age for gun purchases in Utah

Gun Display Stands. Pistols for sale in the store.
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Utah state law allows people 18 years and older to purchase firearms. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to buy a gun and while in possession of the gun.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, got a call from a distraught friend after last week’s mass shooting by an 18-year-old at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

She was sobbing as she told him she had just dropped her child at daycare and felt helpless.

“Why can't we just raise the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21?” she asked.

That got Kitchen digging into some statistics. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 18-20 year olds make up 4% of the population, but they account for 17% of gun homicides in the U.S. This year, 21 of the 26 school shootings at the time of this writing were perpetrated by people younger than 21.

Giffords also reported that states that raised their minimum age to buy a firearm to 21 saw a 9% decrease in firearm suicides among 18-20 year olds.

“We have restrictions about who can buy alcohol. We just recently raised the age from 19 to 21 for those who could purchase tobacco. You can't even rent a car until you're 25,” Kitchen said. “Why on earth are we allowing young people … the ability to walk into Walmart and then two minutes later run down to the movie theater or to church or to our elementary schools and shoot up our kids?”

It’s an idea Mary Ann Thompson of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah said she’d support if it got traction — but she doesn’t think it’s enough.

She wants the state to close loopholes in background checks and enact red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of someone who poses a threat to themselves or others.

“I don't want to take anybody's guns away,” she said. “I just want when someone shouldn't have it, whether it's a temporary emotional issue [or] if they've been found guilty of a felony … You lose your right.”

But efforts to enact similar legislation have stalled in the Utah legislature over the last few years.

House minority leader Brian King has been trying to strengthen background checks for the past four years. This year, his bill H.B. 133 would have required people without federal firearm licenses to do a background check on the recipient when they sell or transfer a gun. It failed 8-3 in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, tried three times to get red flag laws passed. Last year, he told ABC4 News the political will just doesn’t exist in Utah to enact this kind of legislation.

In a statement to KUER, State Senate President Stuart Adams said lawmakers have to get to the root of the gun violence problem.

“To do that, we need to continue to address mental health and how to provide resources before it's too late,” he said. “We have to look at this issue from every angle, from mental health to school safety to [the crisis chat and tip line] SafeUT to gun safety legislation.”

Derek Kitchen said he’d like to see his bill come up in a special session, but failing that he plans to introduce it in next year’s general session.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
Elaine is the News Director of the KUER Newsroom
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