Utah has dropped its gun permit law: Will it be status quo or the Wild West?
Without a concealed carry permit requirement, will gun owners still take training classes? What about the hundreds of permit revocations, denials?
In an upstairs conference room at his Salt Lake City catering company, Aaron Turner has a Glock 19X 9 mm handgun holstered on his hip as he demonstrates how to oil a pistol to a small group of people.
Several other handguns lay on a table next to him. A list of Utah gun laws illuminate the screen behind him. A question arises about carrying a gun in a grocery store.
Turner, who works as certified firearms instructor as a side gig, explains that a store is private property and if an employee asks a gun holder to leave, the best course of action is to leave.
“If they don’t want my gun, they don’t want my money,” he says.
Over five hours, Turner covers gun safety, shooting fundamentals and suicide prevention before diving into 50 pages of state and federal laws. He goes over use of force versus deadly force and the difference between rights on public and private property. He has the group critique videos of everyday people engaging their guns in real-life situations.
In six weeks, the eight men and one woman in the class will receive a concealed firearms permit from the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, provided they clear a background check.
Turner’s classes are nearly full through March. But he soon may no longer be in demand as Utah will now allow people to carry concealed guns without any kind of permit beginning May 5.
And though the so-called “constitutional carry” law does not eliminate the state’s concealed firearms permit program, the question becomes: How many Utah gun owners would bother to obtain the license — and take the requisite firearms safety class, including a suicide prevention module — if it’s no longer required?
Also, while would-be gun owners must undergo a criminal background check to buy a firearm in Utah, eliminating the need for a concealed carry permit also does away with what amounts to a second background check needed to get the license.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, sponsored the bill to drop the permit requirement for Utahns to carry a concealed firearm for people age 21 and older. HB60 sailed through the Utah Legislature. Gov. Spencer Cox signed it Friday afternoon — something his predecessor declined to when lawmakers passed similar legislation. The law takes effect May 5.
“It’s a tiny change, honestly. It’s a tiny, tiny change. It just takes the same people who can carry in the same places already openly and it lets them put a jacket on, and that’s it,” said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Utah has one of the most popular concealed carry permit programs in the country. In fact, the state has issued more permits to people outside the state than inside.
As of the end of December 2020, valid Utah concealed firearms permits numbered 718,218. About 60% of them are held by non-Utah residents, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Information or BCI, which manages the program.
Based on 2017 statistics, Utah had issued the sixth most active concealed carry permits in the country, according to gunstocarry.com.
It’s also a lucrative program, bringing in more than $3 million a year to the state.
BCI officials like the state’s current process.
“You can argue the depth of the training or whatever that may be, but at least they are going through some training to obtain the permits. They also go through background checks. It’s a good system,” said Lt. Nick Street, BCI spokesman.
A 2016 Dan Jones & Associates survey found 75% of Utahns definitely or probably believe adults in the state should not be allowed to carry a concealed weapon unless they have a state-issued permit.
Opponents of the constitutional carry law say not requiring background checks and firearms training will create a gaping hole in public safety.
Syracuse resident Neca Allgood said it would be nice to think people would still take a class anyway, but laws sometimes nudge them to do the responsible thing.
“That permitting process is one of the few tools the state has to ensure people carrying a firearm in a public place have safety training and training on the laws in Utah,” said Allgood, a member of the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group affiliated with the national Everytown for Gun Safety.
Gun violence is personal to Allgood. In 2003, his brother was shot and killed during a robbery of his St. George coin store. In 2018, she lost a close friend to gun suicide.
Allgood, a certified suicide prevention instructor, worries far fewer gun owners will see the firearms suicide prevention module, which includes safe gun storage options, now that there will be no training requirement.
In 2020, more than 162,000 people obtained or renewed their permits in Utah, both of which require the class. Allgood said she would do a “victory dance” if she could reach that many people through her typically small QPR suicide prevention classes.
The module, she said, is the most effective suicide prevention tool the state has right now.
“Do we really want to give that up?” Allgood asked.
The state added the brief module to the gun safety training in 2016 as a way to help curb Utah’s high suicide rate. According to BCI, 86% of firearms deaths in Utah are suicides, far outpacing homicides in which a gun was used.
The new law includes a provision that half of the unused funds from permit and renewal fees go to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health for suicide prevention initiatives and educating the public about safe storage of guns.
“Some will lose that educational opportunity,” Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said on the House floor, noting that 162,000 Utahns last year watched the video as part of their concealed carry training.
He acknowledged it’s not clear exactly how many will opt out of taking the class but using those funds, “we believe, will continue to help Utah reduce the number of individuals that die by suicide.”
Proponents of the bill maintain that although permit applications might drop off, gun owners will continue to attend a gun course on their own. And, they say, the new law won’t make guns any more accessible.
“Being able to put it under a jacket does not increase access to guns. How does it make it more available? The guns are already there,” Brooks said.
Brooks said applications for permits went down in every state that has recently passed a similar law. But, he said, firearms training actually went up in those states, conceding that the only data on that claim is anecdotal.
“I actually think the same thing is going to happen here,” he said.
In South Dakota, permits issued dropped nearly in half from 15,367 in 2018 to 8,306 in 2020 after the state adopted constitutional carry in July 2019.
Only the state’s “enhanced” permit requires a handgun course, which includes use-of-force training, self-defense principles and live fire training of at least 98 rounds. In 2020, the state issued 1,548 enhanced permits, about the same number as it issued before the law change. That permit is recognized in more states than a regular South Dakota permit.
Idaho also adopted permitless carry in July 2019. County sheriff’s offices in the state issued 24,769 concealed weapons licenses in 2018 and nearly the same number the following two years, including 24,246 in 2020, according to data compiled by the Idaho State Police. Some counties require a training class and some do not.
Among the reasons proponents of the new Utah law say people will continue to take the training course is a thing called reciprocity. They say Utah’s permit is one of the most coveted in the country because it is recognized in 37 states and out-of-state residents may obtain it without having to come to Utah.
People outside the state have to meet the same requirement as Utah residents, including taking a training course from a certified firearms instructor.
Also, permit holders in Utah can carry a concealed weapon in essentially the same places a police officer can, such as public schools and universities, Turner said. But constitutional carry hasn’t been defined in law so all it would do is change open carry to concealed carry, he said.
Because of those reasons, Turner said he doesn’t expect much of a drop-off in training classes. And regardless of the change in the law, he said he’s “1,000%” in favor of people taking a course. Gun owners, he said, have a responsibility to learn the laws and develop their skills.
“You don’t get to be a doctor by just operating,” he said.
But Street isn’t so sure people will actually get the training.
“For most of us over here, we would say that’s problematic. But that’s also an individual thing. People should reach out and understand the laws. A lot of times without that classroom or that structure given from the curriculum from our firearm permit course, we just can’t guarantee that’s happening,” he said.
Utah currently requires people who want to carry a concealed gun to obtain a permit after passing a criminal background check and attending a training course from a state-certified instructor. The course, however, does not require a demonstration of firearms proficiency or even firing a gun.
The application fee for a permit is $53.25 for Utah residents and $63.25 for nonresidents. The online renewal fee is $20.75 for residents and $25.75 for nonresidents.
Permit holders must be at least 21 years old, but the state also offers a “provisional” permit for 18- to 20-year-olds.
What about the hundreds of denials, revocations?
In 2020, Utah issued 71,015 standard permits and 12,089 provisional permits, according to BCI.
Utah denied 1,820 applications last year, the most since the program’s inception. Reasons ranged from alcohol violations to domestic violence to felonies, including rape and murder.
Permit revocations numbered 783 in 2020, down from a high of 1,630 in 2016 but higher than the three previous years. The reasons for the revocations were much the same as the denials but also included voting fraud.
The program has brought in at least $3.2 million from application and renewal fees for each of the past five years, including $3.4 million in 2020.
Utah also has an open carry law that lets people to holster visible weapons in all but a few restricted areas. Residents may also keep loaded guns in their personal property such as cars, motor homes and boats.
At least 19 states have some version of a permitless carry law, Brooks said.
Most states mandate that anyone who may legally own a handgun under that state’s laws and properly applies for a permit, “shall” be issued the permit. A handful allow public safety officials to retain some discretion to issue concealed carry permits. They’re called “may issue” states.
There are about 20 million concealed carry permit holders nationwide, according to the U.S. Concealed Carry Association.
Not every state recognizes permits from outside their states.
A North Carolina congressman reintroduced legislation last month that would require each state to honor a concealed carry permit issued by another state. Republican Rep. Richard Hudson’s bill passed the House in 2017 but wasn’t taken up in the Senate. In 2019, it didn’t make it out of committee.
Under the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, for example, a “may issue” state such as Maryland would be required to honor a permit issued in Utah, a “shall issue” state. Maryland would then have to allow the Utah permit holder to carry a concealed firearm everywhere within Maryland that a local permit holder may carry a gun.