Gun bill inspired by slain Utah student rejected again

University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot on campus, is projected on the video board before the start of an NCAA college football game between Oregon and Utah in Salt Lake City on Nov. 10, 2018. (Rick Bowmer)

A gun law proposal inspired by the shooting death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey stalled again Monday after state lawmakers disagreed on whether gun owners should be held liable when loaned firearms are used in a crime.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously against advancing a proposal that would have held gun owners civilly liable if they lend out a firearm used in a crime. The vote came after a hearing where gun rights advocates testified that the measure would put too much blame on the gun owner rather than the one committing the crime.

The sponsor, Democrat Rep. Andrew Stoddard, had dubbed the measure “Lauren’s Law” after slain student Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete who was fatally shot last year on campus by an ex-boyfriend who was using a borrowed gun.

It was the second time this session the members of the Republican-dominated Legislature voted against the measure, which could come back at next year’s session.

“People aren’t willing to be responsible when they loan a gun out and I’m not sure what that hesitation is,” Democratic sponsor Rep. Andrew Stoddard said after the hearing. “This is a bill to encourage smart gun ownership.”

Authorities say McCluskey’s ex-boyfriend, convicted felon Melvin Rowland, killed her on Oct. 22 after getting a gun by telling a friend he wanted to teach his girlfriend how to shoot. Rowland later killed himself as police pursued him. McCluskey was a communications major from Pullman, Washington.

The measure would have streamlined lawsuits against people whose borrowed firearms were used in a felony. It would not have criminalized the gun owner.

Critics of the measure, however, were skeptical that it addressed the problem behind McCluskey’s death.

“Guns are the great equalizer for young women and men who are in danger,” said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, a Republican. “I’m a gun owner and I don’t know very many gun owners who aren’t responsible … I would encourage someone to learn how to use a gun,” she said.

Gun rights advocates also noted the legislation would force the gun owner to prove their innocence.

“We are shifting liability from the criminal to the law-abiding gun owner,” Brian Judy, a representative from the National Rifle Association, told the committee. “This needs to be placed squarely on the back of people doing the crime.”

Stoddard disagreed, saying the legislation is very narrowly tailored to specific crimes and wouldn’t punish gun owners who are victims of theft.

Supporters, on the other hand, argued that the proposal is a movement in the right direction for personal accountability.

“We need to see the importance of gun responsibility,” Democratic Rep. Brian King said. “That guy (who killed McCluskey) should never have had a gun and if we can move in the direction of Utahns moving toward thinking twice to loaning a gun, I think that can save lives.”

During the current session, two other gun-safety measures have gained initial approvals and are now sitting with the Senate. One would educate people about the risk of suicide by gun amid an alarming spike in youth suicides in Utah, as well as help people get safe-storage devices. Another measure would clarify that people can voluntarily surrender their weapons to police if they’re afraid they or someone they live with is at risk.

Stoddard said he’s not done trying to get his gun safety measure passed in Utah.

“I knew this bill was a longshot to pass in a year,” Stoddard said. “But I’m in this for the long haul and I’m going to keep bringing it back until I have something people can support.”

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