<strong>SALT LAKE CITY -</strong> Gun-rights supporters packed a committee room at the state Capitol on Wednesday as lawmakers approved a bill eliminating the need for a permit to carry a concealed gun in Utah.
The proposal was one of half a dozen firearms bills that lawmakers addressed in two Wednesday afternoon hearings.
Supporters of the bill lined the walls in the standing-room-only meeting as lawmakers debated the rights of law-abiding citizens to carry a hidden weapon against concerns about the need for regular background checks and weapons training.
The bill, from John Mathis, R-Vernal, allows anyone 21 or over to carry a hidden gun as long as the person hasn’t been convicted of a crime that bars a person from legally owning a firearm. A permit would still be required to carry a hidden weapon on a school campus or to carry it in other states that honor concealed weapon permits from Utah.
Permit holders must demonstrate that they know how to handle a gun by completing a training course or providing evidence of military service, for example. Most other states follow suit, issuing a concealed carry permit to an applicant who meet requirements such as background checks and minimum training.
If Mathis’ bill becomes law, Utah would join four other states _ Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont _ that don’t require a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Mathis told lawmakers Wednesday that he doesn’t think the bill will encourage people to use guns more often or purchase more weapons.
“I think those who have firearms and use firearms have them and use them now,” he said.
The current patchwork of laws makes it difficult for firearm owners to know when they are and are not violating concealed carry laws, and this bill would clarify that, he said.
Critics of the bill said it jeopardizes public safety because someone would no longer need training to carry a hidden gun, opening the door for shootings caused by an accidental discharge.
They said it would also mean more people barred from carrying a concealed weapon could be carrying a hidden gun. Right now, the Utah Department of Public Safety can revoke the permits of people who break laws that make them ineligible to carry a concealed weapon, but officials cannot track that and inform the person if the permits are no longer required, critics say.
“This bill blatantly disregards a common-sense interest in public safety and thumbs its nose at the most credible research on gun laws,” said Miriam Walkingshaw of the group Utah Parents Against Gun Violence.
Jean Hill, with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said her group is opposed to the measure because it eliminates “the very few restrictions Utah has on carrying firearms,” and creates a “culture of intimidation” with more people carrying deadly weapons.
“This bill sends a clear message on Utah values, and the message we think it says … is that Utah values firearms more than the culture of life,” she said.
Many supporters of the bill showed up carrying their weapons, some with a gun holstered on a hip or sporting the visible outline of a handgun tucked under a shirt. One man brought a large rifle which he propped between his knees during the hearing.
One gun-rights supporter, Sam Fidler, told lawmakers that someone exercising their Second Amendment rights “eliminates the monopoly of force” from criminals or the government.
“It gives us the ability to stand up and say no, you can’t force that on me,” he said. “Whether it’s a rape, a robbery or overbearing government.”
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill 7-2, with two Democrats voting against. It now goes to the full House for consideration.
After running out of time, the committee delayed voting on one of the most controversial proposals in the Legislature this year, which declares that Utah alone is able to regulate firearms in the state. The bill was introduced by Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove.
Lawmakers in at least 16 other states have introduced similar legislation in response to President Barack Obama’s call for increased gun control after recent mass shootings.
A constitutional review of Greene’s bill by legislative attorneys notes that it would very likely be held unconstitutional.
The Pleasant Grove Republican has said he doesn’t agree with that analysis but allowed lawmakers to strip language from it making it a felony for a federal officer to take guns away from Utah citizens.
Lawmakers plan to take it up again Friday morning.
In another committee Wednesday, legislators approved a bill from Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, that bars local law enforcement from citing someone for disorderly conduct for displaying a gun, as long as that person isn’t doing anything else that’s threatening, careless or reckless.
Utah law already allows firearms to be carried openly in many public places, but this would make that very clear, Ray said.
The committee also approved bills allowing someone to temporarily store their guns with law enforcement if they suspect someone in their home may be threatening to themselves or others, and a bill that exempts active members of the military from paying to renew their concealed carry permits every five years.