Amid increase in youth shooting deaths, Utah pediatricians push for tougher gun laws

Sep 30, 2022, 7:19 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:31 pm

This story is one in a series examining the impact of gun violence on Utah’s children and exploring solutions to help keep kids safe.  

SALT LAKE CITYWhat happened over the summer is hard to talk about, but 8-year-old Kael Ellington can sum it up in one word.  

“Scary,” Kael said. “It was very scary.”  

One day in June, he recalled, a blast of dust and glass filled the living room of his family’s Salt Lake City home, and something flew past his cheek. His dad was out getting the mail and returned to find a bullet hole behind the couch where he usually sits while his son plays video games.  

Kael Ellington is pictured in his Salt Lake City home.

“You’d never think it would happen,” Delric Ellington said. “Luckily, we’re fine.” 

That’s not the case for every Utah kid. The number of Utah children and teens killed by gunfire reached a record high in 2020, in part because of a spike in homicides. 

The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020

Concerned about young lives lost to gun violence, some Utah pediatricians are advocating for stricter gun laws. Two doctors told the KSL Investigators they want the issue to be top of mind for state lawmakers.  

Dr. Claudia Fruin lobbied for tougher gun laws in Utah for about a decade. She contends gun owners who don’t store their weapons safely should face jail time if a child finds the weapon and uses it to hurt someone. But her push was unsuccessful. 

“It makes me want to cry,” she said. “There’s no reason a child should ever have access to a gun.”   

Other efforts to tighten gun laws have also failed, like proposals allowing authorities to seize a person’s weapons if a judge deems them a danger to themselves or others. 

There is a reason for that, said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. He sponsored a red-flag proposal in 2020 after earlier attempts failed.  

“I think a lot of Republicans are worried if they vote for a red flag bill, they’re going to have the NRA send a postcard to all of their constituents their next election saying, ‘Senator so and so, Representative so and so does not support the 2nd Amendment,’” he said.  

Weiler said he drafted the proposal just like the NRA wanted, but the influential gun rights group still wouldn’t support it, so most of his colleagues didn’t, either.  The organization told KSL it has conversations with state lawmakers throughout the country.

“But no matter the subject, we will always stand in opposition of legislation that treats the Second Amendment like a second-class right,” said Dan Reid, NRA Western Regional Director, in a statement.

Polling from earlier this year shows Utahns like the idea of stricter gun laws. And state data now shows gunfire is killing more kids than car crashes.   

“Of course, we’re not okay with it,” Weiler said of the troubling trend.  

The issue of gun violence is complex, he continued. He said he’s not certain that proposals designed to ensure Utahns will lock up their guns are a top priority for his colleagues.  

“When you ask about a duty to do something, do what?” he asked. “I think we do care. And I think this is a very complicated problem.” 

Dr. Jennifer Brinton pushed lawmakers for seven years to mandate car seats or booster seats for kids 4-8. The measure passed in 2008.  

Now Brinton, president of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she wants the state to take similar steps to help keep guns away from kids, like a proposalthat failed in 2019. It would have codified safe storage requirements for gun owners, with jail time on the line if a child finds their weapon and shoots someone. 

“We need legislation to help keep our kids safe,” Brinton said. 

Utah doesn’t currently impose penalties on gun owners who fail to keep their weapons out of the reach of children, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  

Brinton noted parents generally try not to leave toddlers unsupervised around a pool, or near an open bottle of pills, she noted, “so let’s be as safe with guns as we are with other things to protect our children.” 

In Salt Lake City, when the bullet tore through the wall of the Ellington’s home, Kael assumed it was a rogue firework. But he quickly began to worry that a gunman was shooting at one apartment after the next, he said. 

Kael’s had trouble sleeping at night since then, but video games like Fortnite and a new puppy named Delilah have provided comfort, he said.  

“I try to get it off my mind off it,” he said. 

The Ellingtons’ former neighbor, Chase Devin Wright, now faces a charge of reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor. He told police he was practicing “dry firing” the gun, according to charging documents, and forgot there was a round in the chamber. Wright has not yet entered a plea.  

For a list of Utah police departments providing free gun locks to the public, visit the Project Child Safe website: https://projectchildsafe.org/safety_kit_site/?safety_kit_state=utah 

Follow reporter Daniella Rivera and producer Annie Knox on Twitter: @DaniellaKSL @anniebknox. 

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Amid increase in youth shooting deaths, Utah pediatricians push for tougher gun laws