Utah gun-rights defenders are sounding an alarm about a proposed ethics-reform ballot initiative that never mentions guns but, they believe, could lead to a gun registry for lawmakers.
At issue in the Utahns for Ethical Government proposal is a conflicts-of-interest section that would require legislators to disclose property that could be subject to government regulation. To vigilant gun owners, that's code for a gun registry because few objects are more regulated, said Charles Hardy, public policy director for the Gun Owners of Utah (GOUtah!).
"I interpret it that way because that is the obvious, clear reading of the law," Hardy said. His organization has circulated an e-mail urging members and others to reject a petition to put ethics reform on next year's ballot.
An attorney who helped draft the initiative asserted the gun-registry interpretation is absurd.
"They said that with a straight face?" asked Utahns for Ethical Government attorney David Irvine. "If there are people out there doing that, I cannot imagine the world of paranoia in which they operate."
Utahns for Ethical Government seeks to impose campaign contribution limits and a gift ban, and to establish an independent ethics commission, among other reforms. The section that riled GOUtah! applies to conflicts of interest, and Irvine said no reasonable judge could interpret it to affect guns.
Courts have restricted commissions -- the state Public Service Commission, for instance -- to making rules that clearly apply to the job at hand, Irvine said. In the case of conflicts, the ethics commission could only have an interest in property that carries a potential financial entanglement. An example, he said, might be real estate that a lawmaker conceivably could sell to the Utah Department of Transportation for a highway right of way.
Even if the proposed commission and the courts interpreted the law to require legislators to list their guns and disclose locations, Irvine said, lawmakers themselves have the last word on administrative rules created by commissions. If they don't like them, he said, they'll change them.
That's the fix Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, prefers for any "rough edges" on the ethics initiative. The sponsors' intent is good, he said, and legislators have the power to tweak any unintended consequences after voters pass it.
But King, also an attorney, was as surprised as Irvine to hear of gun owners' fears.
"Are you serious?" he asked. "They may see something that I don't see, but I've never even thought of this."
King is a rare lawmaker who has overtly supported the initiative, while many have complained that its restrictions will limit the pool who seek elected office.
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, said he hadn't heard of the gun owners' fears but doesn't blame them. Oda, an ardent gun-rights champion, said initiative backers keep insisting they didn't intend effects that are in the measure's plain language.
"I think their concern is very valid," he said.
Utah Shooting Sports Council Chairman Clark Aposhian said there's no room for error when it comes to gun rights. The initiative language leaves open the possibility of "a great degree of abuses of confidentiality."
"We have seen seemingly innocuous, seemingly benign sections of code used for nefarious things," he said. "If the language remains in there, it's [ripe] for abuse."
Aposhian consulted Hardy about sending the e-mail and agrees with GOUtah! but hasn't asked his council's board for an opinion.