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UTAH MAY EASE GUN-CARRYING POLICY

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"Self-defense" may soon become the only reason Utahns need to legally carry a concealed gun.

The state Weapons Task Force will debate changes this week to Utah law that would kill a 20-year-old policy administered by the state Department of Public Safety. It requires applicants for concealed-weapon permits to prove they need a hidden gun for reasons stronger than self-defense.The changes would loosen the requirements, giving anyone over 21 years old a permit "upon proof that the person applying is of good character."

That means he or she could not have been convicted of a felony, any crime of violence, any offense involving alcohol, moral turpitude, narcotics or domestic violence. Also, a successful applicant could not have been ruled mentally incompetent by a court and must have received specific safety training.

The proposal is sponsored in part by the Utah Shooting Sports Council and has the approval of the Department of Public Safety. It is similar to laws in several Western states, including Idaho and Washington, that let citizens apply for concealed-carry permits using only self-defense as justification.

Currently, a Utahn can't legally carry a hidden gun unless he or she:

- Has proved, through documentation and letters of reference, that his personal safety or that of members of his immediate family is threatened.

- Or is an employee in a business or occupation that requires the transportation of cash or other valuables.

- Or is a private investigator.

- Or is a former peace officer who left full-time employment within two years of the date of application.

Opponents argue changes to the administrative policy would fill the streets with gun-toting citizens who would be too tempted to reach for their weapons in times of conflict.

"We all know what it's like to be confronted with highly emotional situations . . . like family fights, traffic incidents or sports-fan altercations," said Steven H. Gunn, a board member of Utahns Against Gun Violence. "It's possible that during those times, otherwise law-abiding people might resort to the use of a gun to solve their disagreements if such weapons are readily available."

So, are citizens in Idaho pulling out Smith & Wessons to solve disagreements?

"No," says Ada County Sheriff Vaughn Killian. "We thought there would be all kinds of problems. But there just hasn't been any. We haven't had any major incidents, maybe a revocation or two, but that's all."

Idaho made it legal in 1991 for citizens to carry guns for self-defense, a move opposed at the time by every major law enforcement association in the state.

"We had about 10 permits in Ada County before the law. We've got about 3,000 now, 10,000 statewide," Killian said. "Our worries never materialized. Most people here like (having a permit) because they can throw a gun under their car seat when they take a trip or just have one for special circumstances."

He believes many who first got permits don't regularly carry now because they've discovered "how uncomfortable it can be."

Police across Idaho, however, still don't like the law because it requires them to give permits to people they may know aren't entirely trustworthy.

"We may have some intelligence on someone about violent activities involving drugs, but we still have to give them a permit unless they've been convicted," Killian said.

That wouldn't be a problem in Utah under the current proposal.

The changes give the state or any authority it designates sweeping power to deny an application if officials "believe the applicant has been or is reasonably likely to be a danger to self or others."

Still, opponents argue, there's no good reason to change existing policy.

"Do we want a community in which the average citizen can't be sure if the next person he sees is carrying a concealed gun?" said Gunn. "Making it easier to get a permit puts more people, most often innocent people, in greater danger."

The task force will discuss the proposed changes at a public meeting Thursday at the state Capitol Building. Lawmakers will have the final say in next March's legislative session.