Since a California concealed-weapon permit is virtually impossible to come by, the Beehive State permit is seen as the next best thing. It’s good in 33 states and also is a badge of honor. It’s a permit from the most permissive gun state in the country. Ours is the only state in the nation to allow guns in schools and increasingly a hot spot of the “open carry” movement of residents who strap on a six-shooter and walk into banks just to show they can.
No wonder, then, that gun-rights advocates are alarmed about Utah’s governor questioning the practice of Utah being concealed-weapon-permit issuer to the world.
“Other states are looking at Utah,” says Clark Aposhian, a longtime gun-rights lobbyist who has helped get the Utah concealed weapons permit increasingly recognized as “a de facto national permit.”
With encouragement from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., state lawmakers this summer are examining Utah’s practice of issuing $35 concealed-carry permits to any law-abiding U.S. citizen who wants one. It’s been such a hit that Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI), which handles the permits, now devotes the majority of its budget to servicing concealed-weapon permit applicants, about half of whom are now from outside Utah.
The Legislature passed a law earmarking all proceeds from concealed weapons licenses to perpetuating the concealed-carry program. There are now about 118,000 Utah permits circulating in the country. This year, the Utah permit popularity spiked—with nearly 5,000 permits issued between January and March. That’s double the number of permits issued by this time last year.
Utah’s vast concealed-weapons program now includes training more than 600 permit instructors from other states. Since 2006, any out-of-state trainer giving classes leading to a Utah permit must travel to Utah every three years for specific training put on by Utah’s BCI. Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, is among those who doesn’t get it. He has opened a bill file to introduce 2009 legislation limiting out-of-state use of Utah concealed-weapon permits.
“No one has been able to answer my question: What is the benefit to Utah citizens of issuing Utah concealed weapons permits to out-of-state residents?” asks McCoy. “I can’t apply for a Montana driver license.”
The answer to McCoy’s question is that—much like school vouchers—the issue is bigger than Utah to gun-rights advocates.
“It’s an ideological thing,” says Aposhian. Utah, as a laboratory for gun rights has demonstrated “the most permissive firearms laws in the nation” and few associated problems.
In the current re-examination of Utah’s concealed weapon policy, gun-right advocates see a slippery slope. “My adversaries on the Hill can’t show me anything wrong [in issuing Utah permits to nonresidents], yet they still want to restrict or ban permits for nonresidents,” he says. “If they could ban them from residents, they would do the same thing.”
Utah’s permit is popular because it is the most honored of any in the nation. It didn’t happen by accident. Gun-rights advocates have lobbied other states to recognize the Utah permit. Most recently, Aposhian worked though the sheriff’s association in Nevada to get that state’s Legislature to recognize the Utah permit in October. Next up on the agenda are holdouts Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Aposhian, who sits on the BCI board that reviews concealed-weapon permits, argues that the result of such work is the creation of the best gun training and licensing system in the country.
The exponential growth of Utah permits shouldn’t be alarming, Aposhian says. “When you see a rise of 2,000 permits in a month, that’s big. Just Utah residents couldn’t support that increase,” he says. “But when you start looking at California, they could support that increase without even thinking about it. And that’s where the majority are coming from.”
California doesn’t yet recognize Utah’s permit, but Californians with a Utah permit can use it in many other states.
To McCoy, that is scary. He worries about Utah’s responsibility for the safety of other states’ residents. Utah concealed-weapon-permit holders are checked daily to see if they have committed crimes that would result in losing a permit. But out-of-state applicants are only checked when they renew a permit every five years. In 2000, when Utah began daily checks for Utah permit holders, the numbers of revoked permits jumped more than 300 percent.
Huntsman wants the concealed-carry law changed so that Utah’s permit is available only to residents of other states that have formal reciprocity agreements with Utah, says Lisa Roskelley, the governor’s spokeswoman. The idea is to agree on uniform standards for training and safety.
After a prolonged battle with the University of Utah led to Utah passing the nation’s first law expressly allowing guns in schools, the National Rifle Association this year led a lobbying effort to get other states to follow suit. Bills were introduced in 15 states; none passed.
Aposhian isn’t worried that the gun-rights tide is turning, at least not in Utah. “Historically, they agree with personal rights and Second Amendment-based principles here in Utah,” he says. “I have faith in my Legislature.”