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TASK FORCE STEPS TOWARD EASING LAW ON HIDDEN GUNS

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A legislative task force stepped closer Thursday to recommending lawmakers loosen restrictions on carrying a concealed gun. But they didn't leap as far as they could have.

Members refused to excise from the state's current concealed weapon law a section that requires applicants to prove they need one. However, they made several decisions that seemed to clear the path for that action in the future."We're closer to eliminating cause, a lot closer," said member Doug Bodrero, also the state's commissioner of public safety.

In other words, if lawmakers agree with the direction of the task force, law-abiding Utahns could justify their need for a permit with just one word - self-defense.

Officials agree that would greatly expand the number of permits issued, which is exactly what anti-gun groups fear.

"I don't think that having more people packing guns around the supermarket is the answer to gun violence in our society," said Gary Sackett with Utahns Against Gun Violence. "I don't want to have to wonder whether the next person I meet has a pistol tucked in his waistband, his pocket or the top of his boot."

Sympathizers were in the minority at the three-hour meeting and lost ground almost immediately. In his opening remarks, Chairman Alarik Myrin, a Republican senator from Altamont, returned their criticism that the task force was improperly considering the issue.

At least one member agreed with critics. Rep. David Jones, D-Salt Lake, said the group's sole mandate was to resolve conflicts in gun laws that exist between local governments and the state.

But his seven colleagues pushed the debate forward.

They adopted changes to four sections, radically altering the permit process. Successful applicants now:

- Must never have been convicted of any crime involving domestic violence, a felony, any offense involving alcohol or controlled substances.

- Must pass a written test and prove competency with the type of firearm that will be concealed. For example, if an applicant wants to carry a revolver, he or she must prove through certified field training that the applicant can use it safely. Those wanting to carry a semi-automatic handgun would have to be certified in its use.

- Must complete a course by an instructor approved by the Division of Public Safety.

The committee also voted to give the division or its designated agent sweeping power to deny an applicant if officials "believe it is more likely than not" that the applicant is a danger to self or others.

Bodrero reluctantly moved to adopt the changes, saying he is personally opposed to any liberalization of the law.

"Having a gun on your person does not guarantee your safety," he said, pointing out that 108 trained police officers have been killed with their own weapons.

But he also acknowledged the tide of opinion that seems to be driving lawmakers to amend the statute. If it's going to happen, he said, he'd rather it be done in a reasoned forum rather than following a "15-minute debate at the end of the (legislative) session."

Utahns now can get a permit only if they demonstrate reason to have one. For example, applicants must document their lives are in danger or that they carry large amounts of cash.

The proposed statute, the wording of which the task force has yet to adopt, says the department shall issue a permit to anyone over age 21 "for lawful defense of self upon proof that the person applying is of good character."

The task force plans to debate that wording at a meeting on Sept. 22. Lawmakers will have the final say at their next session.