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Concealed weapon law is too liberal and should be tightened

Utah should return to the concealed weapon law it had before it was amended in 1995 when it was made substantially easier to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Prior to amending the law, there were fewer than 1,000 people licensed to carry a hidden gun. At that time, in order to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, an individual had to demonstrate a specific need, such as employment requirements, or establish with authorities that there were life-threatening circumstances. Today, without those restrictions, there are 25,000 permit holders, representing 2 percent of the adult population.

In reaction to public concerns about the recent shootings in Salt Lake City and the multiple incidents of gunfire in schools across the U.S., proponents of concealed weapons in Utah have renewed their objections to placing further restrictions on where they may carry their guns in public places. Some have even suggested that concealed weapons should be encouraged in schools and churches despite the fact that for three years, opinion polls have documented the public's overwhelming desire to eliminate guns from those settings.In order to justify putting more guns in the hands of more people in more places, advocates of concealed weapons repeatedly say that the public should have no reason for concern because persons licensed to carry concealed weapons are "all law-abiding citizens" and they have "undergone thorough background checks and had extensive firearms training." Former House-speaker-turned-lobbyist, and current Chairman of the Utah Republican Party, Rob Bishop, was reported as saying that children would only be put more at risk if law-abiding citizens can't take concealed weapons into schools (Deseret News, February 9, 1999).

On May 19, in testimony before the Utah Legislature's interim Judiciary and Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, a spokesman for the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said in reference to concealed weapons carriers, "There have been no reported prosecutions" for criminal behavior. To the contrary, the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, which oversees concealed weapons permits, routinely revokes concealed weapon licenses from persons who have either been convicted of a crime or had a court order issued against them.

In testimony at that same legislative hearing, Utah Commissioner of Public Safety, Craig Dearden, stated that currently approximately 12 permits are revoked every month. Records from the BCI show that over 100 permits have been revoked since January 1998. Utah's concealed weapon law prohibits the BCI from disclosing any information about concealed handgun license holders to the public. Occasionally, in high-profile incidents, newspaper accounts may mention that the suspect possessed a license to carry a concealed weapon. But in the vast majority of cases, the public is not informed of alleged criminal acts by persons licensed to carry concealed weapons. In addition, BCI has not kept records of the various reasons for which permits were revoked. However, a few individuals have appealed their revocations, and those appeals are a matter of public record.

Utahns Against Gun Violence has determined that in the past year, concealed weapon licenses have been revoked for convictions of aggravated assault, assault, threatening with a dangerous weapon, drug-related offenses, domestic violence, drunk driving, trespassing, and alcohol-related recklessness. A number of these are crimes of violence. It is important to realize that these cases represent only about 10 percent of all the revocations. Because of the license holders' willingness to challenge the revocation at a public hearing, it is possible that these offenses may well represent the least severe of the crimes committed. With the exception of weapons-related offenses, the BCI becomes aware of a criminal conviction of a concealed weapons holder when a new background check is run either when the individual seeks to purchase a gun from a licensed firearms dealer or applies to renew his or her concealed weapon license. Because the 1999 Legislature extended the license term from two to five years, it is possible for a permitee to possess his or her license for as long as five years after being convicted of a crime that should normally result in revocation of the license.

In resisting the Governor's urging of the Legislature to ban weapons, concealed or otherwise, in schools, House Speaker Marty Stephens was quoted as saying " . . . never in the history of the state or the country has there been an incident of gun violence involving a properly licensed concealed-weapons permit holder" (Deseret News, June 10, 1999).

Although commonly asserted by defenders of concealed weapons, this is blatantly untrue. More populous states with concealed weapons laws, such as Florida and Texas, have had serious offenses committed by concealed-weapon license holders. In Texas, which also adopted its liberalized concealed weapons law in 1995, 1.3 percent of the adult population have licenses to carry concealed handguns. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, between January 1, 1996, and December 31, 1998, concealed handgun license holders were arrested for a total of 2,080 crimes.

Although there is no proven evidence to support their contention, proponents of concealed weapons argue that public safety is enhanced by having an armed public, and that concealed-weapon holders serve to augment inadequate police protection. While police officers undergo intensive, year-round training in the use of firearms in dangerous and highly stressful situations, the "training" required for obtaining a concealed weapon permit is one-time and minimal at best.

Although advocates of concealed weapons promise reduced crime, we are unaware of any documented instance in Utah where a concealed weapon holder legally acted in self-defense. To the contrary, the existing law puts more concealed guns in the hands of those who will misuse them and, accordingly, threaten the public safety. Far more often than not, persons carrying concealed weapons don't prevent crimes, they commit them.

Although Utahns Against Gun Violence supports continuing efforts to place restrictions on where concealed weapons may be carried, we believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of Utah to repeal the 1995 amendment to the law. Concealed weapons should be carried only by those persons who can demonstrate a legitimate need to do so. Putting more guns in the hands of more people in more places does not create a safer society.

William Nash is chair of the board of directors of Utahns Against Gun Violence.