ST. GEORGE — Utah is one of several states considering loosening restrictions allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit. A bill that would do just that advanced in the Utah House last week. The bill’s sponsor calls the measure “a small step” forward in the state’s gun laws, while opponents consider it dangerous.
“A lot of people call this a huge step,” Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, the sponsor of House Bill 60, told the House Judiciary Committee last Friday, as he presented the bill for approval. “It’s really a small step.”
In Utah, someone can carry a concealed weapon in their home, on their property or in their vehicle, he said. People can also openly carry firearms in public.
“But if you put your jacket over that open carry, you’re now breaking the law,” Brooks said.
Fifteen states already allow concealed carry without a permit, and lawmakers in nine others have proposed allowing or expanding the practice. GOP governors are backing the changes in Utah and Tennessee. Another bill expanding permit-less carry in Montana has passed the state House.
Most states require people to do things like get weapons training and undergo a background check to get a permit to carry a gun hidden by a jacket or inside a purse. Groups like the National Rifle Association and state lawmakers who support gun rights argue those requirements are ineffective and undermine Second Amendment protections.
Brooks referenced various studies that concluded there was little to no impact on the rates of violent crime and homicides in states that legalized carrying concealed firearms without a permit.
One study the Southern Utah legislator repeatedly cited was a 2019 study from the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. The study, which covered 30 years and focused on conceal carry laws, found “no statistically significant association between the liberalization of state level firearm carry legislation over the last 30 years and the rates of homicides or other violent crime.”
“We don’t have to guess anymore what’s going to happen,” he said. “We have the evidence.”
Moreover, Brooks said that it was time to “get back to trusting law-abiding citizens, because that’s what they do – they obey the law.”
Having a permit or not won’t change how the law treats you if you’re misusing your firearm somehow, he said. Someone can’t be drunk and have a gun on them, or be a restricted individual and have a gun, and so on, under the law. Having a conceal carry permit or not won’t change that.
While Brooks’ bill has found over 30 co-sponsors, including Southern Utah Reps. Lowry Snow, Travis Seegmiller, Brad Last, Rex Shipp and Phil Lyman, other legislators have their doubts and shared worries that approving the measure may increase the state’s suicide rate and possibly also have a negative impact on communities of color in the inner-city.
“If you don’t require permits, you’re going to, by definition, increase the number of guns that are carried in a concealed way,” Rep. Brian King, D-Salt lake City, said. “I struggle with what we are trying to do here.”
King noted that 85% of the state’s suicide deaths have involved firearms. He also said he felt the increase in guns carried by people could lead to accidental discharges resulting in increased injury or death.
Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake City, voiced concerned for members of communities of color who may be stereotyped by police if found carrying a concealed gun, even if it is done legally without a permit.
“If this passes and they’re carrying a gun, there’s already a stereotype (by police) that they’re carrying it for the wrong reason and they may potentially suffer the consequences of that,” Wheatley said.
Brooks said he agreed police potentially stereotyping people of color was an issue, yet added he believed it was a separate issue. He also said the studies have shown that when people are able to conceal carry without a permit, it actually benefits some communities of color as it gave them an ability to more easily defend themselves.
Utah’s gun-involved suicides, as well as a general lack of the firearms training, were among the primary concerns of the many parties that spoke against HB60.
Representatives of the Utah Medical Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness, March for Our Lives and the Gun Violence Prevention Center, along with a handful of private citizens, spoke against the bill.
“We believe that the suicide issue is very significant,” Mark Brinton said for the Utah Medical Association.
Ed Rutan, who represented the Gun Violence Prevention Center, said the group had little faith that certain gun owners would be responsible enough to get firearms safety training if not mandated by the state.
“People who will benefit from this are lazy, irresponsible gun owners who won’t put in the time or effort in learning what it means to be a responsible gun owner,” he said.
Currently, people who want a concealed carry permit have to pay for a state-approved course that amounts to a single, multi-hour class that reviews the basics of gun safety and Utah’s gun laws. The responsibility that comes with being a permit holder is also explained.
The conceal carry permit application also involves passing a background check, another reason opponents of the bill said there shouldn’t be a way around it.
Brooks, as well as many others who support the bill, agreed there needs to be more training, yet also put their faith in Utah’s gun owners to seek additional training on their own rather than have it mandated.
Groups with representatives that spoke in favor of Brooks’ bill included the Libertas Institute, Utah Shooting Sports Council, Utah Firearms Association, National Rifle Association and National Association of Gun Rights.
Jeff Bailey, a senior policy analyst for the National Association of Gun Rights, who is also a counselor, spoke on the suicide issue raised by others.
“Suicide is not caused by firearms. Suicide is not caused by access to firearms,” Bailey said. “Suicide is caused by despair, and unless we are saying despair is reduced by having a government permit to wear your coat over your firearm, the argument that this bill will have any impact on suicide is specious and should be rejected.”
While HB60 would allow people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, it does not do away with the state’s permitting system. Both Utahns and those outside of Utah would still be able to apply for a permit as there are still advantages to having one, Brooks said.
A primary advantage is Utah’s conceal carry permit having reciprocity with several other states.
In his closing remarks before the committee, Brooks said, “the scope of this is covering your gun with your jacket. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Other topics, while significant, were separate issues, he said.
Brooks’ bill passed the judiciary committee in an 8-3 vote and moves to the House floor for debate Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.