Last month, Utah state legislators and stakeholders held this year’s first meeting of the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force. The purpose of this group is to study and make recommended changes to criminal penalties in the Utah Code related to aggravated murder, tax fraud and other crimes. These interim meetings that happen outside of the yearly general legislative session are critical to follow because they are commonly the source of local policy changes which impact all of us.
One significant recommendation made was to increase the state’s penalty for possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. Serial numbers on firearms may not seem like a major deal breaker for gun safety, but identification markers are important for buyers’ and owners’ management of their weapons as well as for tactics used by law enforcement. Serial numbers play an essential role in understanding and addressing sources of crime committed with guns, and this information can help prevent future offenses. Investigative information also helps authorities better identify and respond to crime patterns, which improves the direction of our resources.
Currently, it is a Class A misdemeanor in both federal and state law to destroy or alter a serial number on a firearm. While federal law penalizes possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number, the Utah State Code generally does not bat an eye unless you are outright destroying a number and law enforcement happens to catch you in the act.
The reality is, local law authorities rarely — if ever — walk in on individuals obliterating a serial number. What they are coming across is the possession of already compromised weapons, and because of our local laws, they are unable to do anything about it. Furthermore, the discrepancy between federal and state law creates an unruly situation that is so pervasive that the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office itself presented a report on the issue to the task force. It’s now up to the legislature to run with this information for the betterment of our code and safety.
Expanding the state law to cover possession would make the state code more consistent and applicable because it would put the literal act of destroying a serial number and possessing a gun with a destroyed serial number on equal footing, as it is considered federally. Increasing the penalty of possession is the logical step in the direction of promoting the general welfare of Utahans. It is far more logical than the alternative, eliminating the penalty for serial number violations altogether. Elimination would only heighten the contradiction between the federal and state laws, not to mention that it is an irresponsible move away from safety.
The state should take the obliteration of serial numbers seriously. Local policy would actually be useful to authorities if public safety truly is a goal in our community. The county district attorney office’s recommendation of increasing the penalty for possession is “still substantially more lenient than federal law,” but it would be a good first step for the state.
Estimates show that the number of civilian-held firearms is over 393,300,000 in the United States. Why wouldn’t we want enforcement of serial numbers on the millions of objects that are capable of so much harm? The legislature has the power to make this amendment in the upcoming session and it would be irresponsible for them not to do so.