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Utah lawmakers to grapple with gun issues

With a contentious debate over gun rights sweeping the nation, Utah lawmakers have several firearms-related bills in the chamber, including the return of the so-called "constitutional carry" law.
With a contentious debate over gun rights sweeping the nation, Utah lawmakers have several firearms-related bills in the chamber, including the return of the so-called "constitutional carry" law.
Sascha Burkard, Getty Images/iStockphoto

SALT LAKE CITY — With a contentious debate over gun rights sweeping the nation, Utah lawmakers have several firearms-related bills in the chamber, including the return of the so-called "constitutional carry" law.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, is running the controversial legislation again this year that would let people carry concealed weapons without the permit Utah law requires. His bill passed the Senate in 2015 but didn't get through the House.

Hinkins calls it "pushback" against efforts to chip away at gun rights.

"The main reason I'm doing it is I've got a bunch of constituents that are just hellbent for election that they shouldn't have to have a permit to carry it. They say they don't have to have a permit to have free speech, they shouldn't have to have a permit to carry a weapon," he said. "And they really don't, other than if you put a coat over it. Then you're screwed."

Utah law allows guns to be openly carried. But it is against the law to have it under a jacket or in a purse without a permit. Hinkins' bill would make carrying a concealed gun legal for anyone at least 21 years old.

Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed the same legislation in 2013, citing police concerns that the law would make dramatic changes in the state's permit system that requires a background check and a firearms safety course.

That may or may not be his position at the end of the 2016 session.

Herbert spokesman Jon Cox said the governor has been working with several legislators on this issue over the past few months. It is still early in that process, but Herbert is optimistic that a common sense resolution can be found, he said.

Hinkins' bill is among four or five in the works as the 2016 Legislature gets underway Monday.

Provo Republican Rep. Norm Thurston again will try to repeal a state law that makes it a felony to carry a concealed gun or dangerous weapon on a bus or train. The House unanimously passed the bill last year, but it didn't get through the Senate.

Also, Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, is looking at legislation that would fix an apparent computer glitch that sometimes causes background checks on gun sales to take two or three hours. The check typically takes about 15 minutes through the state Bureau of Criminal Identification.

State lawmakers held off on passing much gun legislation last year, but that could change given recent national events.

Mass shootings and gun violence across the country prompted President Barack Obama to take executive action to beef up background checks on gun sales and strengthen enforcement of firearms laws. The move outraged conservative state legislators who say they still don't know what it means for local buyers and sellers.

"We want to make sure that anything that gets done, gets done right," said Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, a staunch advocate for gun owners. "No one really knows what's in his directive. That is the danger in the things he does."

Oda said he has some legislation in the works but declined to discuss specifics, other than to say the goal is to strengthen Second Amendment rights.

"We don’t call it guns rights anymore. We call it self-defense rights. Guns don't have rights. People have rights," he said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was happy to see Obama's executive orders, which he called measured, moderate and well within the president's authority. He's frustrated that lawmakers can't discuss the issue more openly.

"We can’t even talk about this without being immediately put in a corner as a Second Amendment offender or wanting to take guns away. We need to have conversations," said King, who has opposed constitutional carry measures in the past.

King said he has reached out to Republicans on initiatives to set aside money to study the roles mental illness and substance abuse play in gun violence.

"What can we do together?" King said. "How can we make progress on this without running to each corner of the ring?"

Lawmakers, he said, need good information on which to base decisions.

"We can’t turn away when more and more occurrences are happening. This resonates with a lot of people. We need rational discussions on simply getting more information," he said.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, has a bill that would give junior high school students more information, particularly what to do if they happen across a gun.

SB43 would create a pilot program to teach firearm safety and violence prevention. It wouldn't be mandatory nor would guns be used in the training. Schools would decide whether to offer the program, and parents would decide whether their children attend. The bill sets aside $75,000 for the instruction.

Weiler compared it to Red Ribbon Week where schoolchildren are taught what to do when they encounter drugs.

"We all do better in situation as human beings if we think through and talk through a situation before we're confronted with it," he said.

Schools also could extend the training to include how to react to an active shooter situation, Weiler said.

The concept isn't new. Davis School District ran a successful gun safety program called Talk and Lock in schools for several years starting in the late 1990s. An armed student taking hostages in the Syracuse Junior High School cafeteria sparked the program.

"It wasn’t an anti-gun thing. It was everyone working together," said retired Davis district administrator David Turner.

The program, which involved schools, police agencies and local government, basically taught children to call an adult if they find a gun or hear about someone at school with a weapon.

Turner said a dozen students knew about the gun the Syracuse student brought to school but were too scared or didn't know what to do about it.

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