Utah launches optional gun safety program for schools

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Utah officials are unveiling a gun safety program aimed at preventing accidental shootings that will be optional for schools. The program was mandated three years ago by state lawmakers who have consistently rejected gun-control measures. Reyes said that the program avoids the politically sensitive issues of gun policy and instead addresses the reality that an estimated four in 10 households in the state have a gun. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah officials are unveiling a gun safety program aimed at preventing accidental shootings that will be optional for schools.

The program had been mandated three years ago by state lawmakers who have consistently rejected gun-control measures.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Thursday at a news conference that the program avoids the politically sensitive issues of gun policy and instead acknowledges that many children are bound to come across guns in a state where an estimated four in 10 households have a firearm. Utah is also one of several states that allow teachers with concealed carry permit holders to carry guns in schools.

“This addresses the reality that guns are a party of our society and are often in places where children can find them,” Reyes said.

The program features a 5-minute video and would be taught to children in fifth through 12th grades by law enforcement officers who already work with students. School districts will have to approve the course, and parents will have to provide written permission.

The state paid about $70,000 to a Texas-based business called Kalkomey Co. to make the video and program. The course teaches children not to pick up guns and to let adults know if they see one. The Attorney General’s Office coordinated with the Utah State Board of Education to create the program.

Reyes said he’s hopeful many districts use the program starting this school year, but said it’s unknown at this time.

The launch comes one day after a teenager was arrested after bringing a gun to a high school in Salt Lake City.

Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the law, said the idea sprouted from a story his friend told him about two boys finding a gun in a drawer at one of their houses while looking for batteries for a video game controller. One of the boys stopped the other from grabbing the firearm based on previous guidance from his parents, but Weiler said not all parents take time to talk about what to do with their children.

“This video is not a magic elixir and it’s not going to solve all the problems that we have with guns in our society,” said Weiler, a Republican. “But I do think if it’s used effectively by parents and schools, it can help kids stop and think about what they are going to do ... and maybe save a life.”

Utah’s mostly Republican state legislature earlier this year signed a declaration that Utah doesn’t need new gun-control measures like a so-called red flag law that would temporarily take guns from people acting dangerously. The Legislature also rejected a proposal that would have held gun owners civilly liable if they lend out a firearm used in a crime.

Weiler said “adults need to act like adults” and be responsible with their firearms, saying he thinks most gun owners are responsible. He said liability for crimes that occur using guns left out should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Reyes, when asked if more laws are needed to punish gun owners who leave out guns found by kids, declined comment. Speaking generally about how to keep guns properly stored, he said adults should watch gun safety videos and encouraged people to use gun locks.

Ken Trump, a school safety expert with the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, said the instructors will need to be careful that the program doesn’t cause more stress and anxiety in a climate were many students and educators are already on edge about shootings.

He said it may also be wise to let parents handle this topic, and not ask educators who are already being asked to juggle a bevy of topics and may not want to deal with a topic so polarizing.

“We continue to pack on the burden upon schools to fix so many societal ills and then we wonder why they’re not able to meet some of the basic accountability standards for traditional instruction?” Trump said.

But parent Aja Gonzalez said she thinks the program is a good idea. Her 10-year-old son Sam was held up as an example of what to do after he and his friends found a gun in the snow this winter at their bus stop and immediately told adults and didn’t touch it. She said they had talked about such a scenario at home.

“I’m just glad he knew what to do,” she said. “To me it’s just common sense that you would give your child permission for the course.”