- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah legislators quietly changed a state law last year to keep in an attempt to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous domestic abusers, following a nationwide trend of state legislative action on a rare area of consensus in the polarized debate over guns.

The measure prohibits anyone convicted of domestic violence assault after May 1, 2015, from having a firearm. It covers both misdemeanor and felony assaults.

It was sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings and Sen. Daniel Thatcher with the backing of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. It passed both the House and Senate unanimously, garnering hardly any attention.

It marked a positive step forward in addressing domestic violence, but a formal system to ensure these people actually give up their firearms has not yet been implemented, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

“We know having access to a firearm in a domestic violence assault case increases the likelihood of homicide and suicide significantly,” Oxborrow said.

A total of 39 people in Utah were killed with guns by their spouses, ex-spouses and dating partners between 2006 and 2014, according to FBI data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The victims were mostly women: Wives and girlfriends accounted for 32 of the 39 victims, the data shows.

One recent case was Johnathon Reeves, a 30-year-old veteran who authorities say shot and killed his fiance and their son in June 2015 before killing himself. Reeves had threatened to kill his fiance and her children the year before but took a plea that allowed him to enter veteran’s court and see a judge weekly.

The figures are likely an undercount because not all law enforcement agencies voluntarily report the information.

There have been 264 domestic violence-related homicides in Utah from 2000-2013, according to data from the state health department. Guns were used in many of those killings, but an exact figure was not available.

That accounts for 43 percent of all Utah’s homicides over that span.

Mitch Vilos, a defense lawyer and firearms instructor, called the new state measure reasonable. But he and other gun-rights advocates don’t think sweeping new laws are the answer, pointing to a federal law already in place.

Federal law has long prohibited felons, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse crimes and individuals subject to permanent protective orders from buying or owning guns. Critics say the federal law is too weak because it does not apply to dating relationships, does not ban guns during temporary protective orders and does not establish procedures for abusers to surrender firearms.

More than a dozen other states have strengthened laws designed to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers over the past two years. The measures match or exceed the federal prohibitions to give local police and prosecutors greater ability to enforce the gun restrictions.

Vilos said the focus shouldn’t be on laws but on establishing a culture where domestic violence victims are taught how to protect themselves, Vilos said. If an abuser is intent on killing, no law will stop them, he said.

Vilos said threatened women should be given a gun and a free certificate to a gun safety course and told to keep the weapon with them at all times.

“They should be encouraged and told that they need to take measures in order to protect themselves if they think there is a credible threat,” Vilos said. “That would do a heck of a lot more to protect these women.”

Oxborrow called that school of thought “absurd.”

“It’s victim blaming. It’s the exact wrong way to look at the situation,” Oxborrow said. “In a state like Utah where we’re watching our domestic violence homicide rate escalate each year, arming more women isn’t going to do anything to prevent violence. If we put more guns in homes where domestic violence is occurring, we’ll see more deaths.”

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