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Dick's, Walmart to restrict firearms; Utah lawmakers set to convene safe schools task force

SALT LAKE CITY — The ongoing national and local conversations about gun violence issues got another infusion of interest Wednesday when the nation's largest sporting goods retailer announced it would no longer carry assault-style weapons.

Later in the day, Walmart announced it would begin limiting firearms and ammunitions sales to customers 21 and older. The retailer noted in a statement that it had discontinued sales of assault-style weapons in 2015.

In Utah, Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said a task force of diverse community stakeholders will convene Thursday in the first of a planned series of work sessions to hammer out a strategy to enhance the safety of Utah children during their time at school.

The plan is for the working group to produce a list of actionable items in time for a June or July special legislative session.

"Most people recognize it is time to address this issue," Kennedy said. "It's been magnified to the point where we need to do something. And the Utah School Safety effort will be working to determine what that something looks like."

Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack made the announcement that his company will no longer carry assault-style weapons on "Good Morning America," saying the recent Florida school shooting was the galvanizing factor behind the decision.

"As we looked at what happened down in Parkland, we were so disturbed and saddened by what happened we felt we really needed to do something," Stack said.

While the announcement by Dick's will have less impact on Utah — the company banned assault-style weapons sales at Dick's Sporting Goods outlets following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy — it will affect sales policies at 35 Field & Stream stores they also operate, and at which assault-style weapons were available for purchase. The Field & Stream branded stores are mostly located in the Midwest and eastern U.S.

Stack said the decision to permanently ban assault weapon sales at all locations, as well as eliminating stocking high-capacity clips and limiting all firearms sales to customers 21 and older, was pushed forward by the actions of students at the Parkland school after the shooting incident.

"Our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these out of here," Stack said. "We've just decided that, based on what's happened and with these guns, we don't want to be a part of this story."

Kennedy recognizes the task ahead for the Utah Safe Schools group is complex and multifaceted, but said he is looking forward to convening the effort and expected the work to move forward with a sense of "urgency … and with a deadline."

"This is far more complicated than just gun control, it's murderous intent control," Kennedy said. "There will be many considerations as we explore measures that can deal with this in a proactive manner."

While Kennedy declined to identify group participants ahead of Thursday's announcement, he said it will be comprised of 10 to 15 disparate experts that will include teachers, at least two high school students, mental health professionals, school board members, public safety officers and academics.

One of the group members will be Utah Shooting Sports Council Chairman Clark Aposhian. Aposhian told the Deseret News that actions like the ones announced by Dick's Sporting Goods really don't serve to address the problem of mass shooting incidents.

"I see (the policy change) as an emotional, knee-jerk response that is entirely disproportionate to the threat that semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines are to this entire issue," Aposhian said. "Logic is not at the heart of it. It is not a well-reasoned approach."

Aposhian pointed out that the overwhelming majority of gun violence incidents carried out in the U.S. do not involve assault-style weapons. He noted that he was honored to be invited to participate in the Utah Safe Schools effort and hoped that solutions to addressing mental health issues would figure into the conversations but also underscored his position that instituting any firearm-specific bans was something he thought would be ineffective.

"What you're relying on is the criminal's inclination to obey that law," Aposhian said. "And we've seen that criminals flat-out don't obey those laws, so only the law-abiding will be impacted by those decisions."

Nancy Farrar Halden, chairwoman of the Utah Gun Violence Prevention Center, said she hopes the legislative working group will make progress but was measured in setting expectations.

"I applaud the Legislature for putting this group together, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Halden said. "I'm concerned that the outcome will be the same as usual. Too often our lawmakers tiptoe around the gun lobby and don't come up with real solutions."

Halden said her group has worked for years to keep guns out of schools and churches and identified gun suicides and domestic violence incidents involving guns as critical issues for Utah. Halden said she'd like to see improvement in the area of gun violence protective orders and that other states that have advanced legislation in this area have seen measurable improvements.

Kennedy said the approach format for the Utah Safe Schools group will be determined by its participants, but did indicate that the meetings themselves will take a page from the history books.

"We're going to take a closed-door, Constitutional Convention-style approach," Kennedy said. "We want to let this group be able to talk privately … in an intimate setting where they can be open and honest with one another."

The Utah County legislator, who works both as a family doctor and attorney, said the work of the Utah Safe Schools would not be guided by predetermined goals and noted that, as far as potential outcomes, "everything is on the table."

"What I want to do is bring this dream team of Utah school safety officials together," Kennedy said, "and let them work together, bringing their different perspectives to arrive at substantive, actionable solutions."