Parked in the front lot of the Utah Capitol is a red car with a yellow bumper sticker announcing: “I am the gun lobby.”
Clark Aposhian strides toward it, briefcase in hand, his tie festooned with rifles and handguns flipping about in the breeze. On his steel blue case is a sticker replicating a fake bullet hole. His car? A Dodge Magnum, of course.
It had been a tough day for the ubiquitous lobbyist. For the better part of the week, he’d been working with Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, on reworking a bill that was to give the state forester power to close outdoor areas to target shooters during high-danger fire season.
On Wednesday, things appeared to come to a head as Oda, an intern and Aposhian huddled in the hallway over smart tablets and papers.
“Right now, this is still no good,” Aposhian said. “This is still a gun bill.”
Oda nodded. Aposhian, chairman of the powerful Utah Shooting Sports Council, wanted more sweeping language in the proposal — namely banning everyone from an area deemed a high-fire risk. For his part, Oda wanted Aposhian’s stamp of approval on the bill, and he wanted him to be at a news conference Thursday hosted by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Margaret Dayton.
“The way it’s written, you may not want me at the press conference,” Aposhian said.
When the cameras started rolling the next day, he wasn’t there.
Oda stood in the background as Dayton explained the bill — talking for nine minutes before mentioning the word “guns.”
Oda barely spoke at all.
Gun bills galore • Guns are a hot topic on Capitol Hill this session and three high-profile bills on the topic are likely to be launched this week.
Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, is sponsoring a measure that would make Utah a constitutional carry state: no permit needed to carry a concealed weapon. Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, is carrying a bill that would empower local authorities to arrest federal agents attempting to seize guns from Utah residents and would nullify any new federal gun-control laws. And Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is again pushing a proposal that would prohibit local police from charging a person openly carrying a firearm with disorderly conduct — so long as the person wasn’t breaking the law in some other way.
Oda said Aposhian is critical to the fate of each bill.
“Clark has been instrumental because we don’t have the time to look at every little detail and compare,” Oda said. “He’s actually the primary source to double-check everything.”
The gun lobby at Utah’s Capitol has been active — though the state tends to be one of the more firearms-friendly places in the nation, with a concealed-weapons permit recognized in 33 states, a fat zero out of 100 points rating from the gun-control lobbying group the Brady Campaign, and its distinction as the first in the nation to declare an official state gun: the Browning M1911 pistol.
Charles Hardy loves that about Utah, but he believes “incrementalism” could lead to a decay even in this state’s gun laws.
So Hardy set up GoUtahorg — an entirely Internet-driven lobbying effort from his Sandy home that generates email alerts and activates those attentive souls fearful of Second Amendment erosions to show up at rallies, contact lawmakers and fill committee rooms.
On its website, the organization declares in screaming red type: “No Compromise! No Retreat! No Surrender! Not Now! Not Ever!” But it belies the soft-spoken Hardy, a 42-year-old electrical engineer and father of three who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and raises chickens and bees at his home in Sandy.
Hardy said it was his few years in Boston — with its strict firearms laws — that molded him into a gun activist in the Beehive State.
“I just decided I needed to do this,” Hardy said of his time in Boston in the mid-’90s. “I stood in the cradle of liberty and realized then if I stood there with my .22 rifle, I’d be arrested. I didn’t want Utah to become Massachusetts.”
Hardy said he’s a political junkie — his wife and he do a date night each year at the Capitol on the last night of the legislative session — and Aposhian says Hardy’s the grassroots arm of the gun lobby in Utah.
“We represent different people on the same issue. He can be a little more outspoken,” Aposhian said. “I have to be a little more careful because I have to see these people [lawmakers] on a daily basis.
In the thick of it • The gun lobby has other moving parts on Capitol Hill. Brian Judy, who works for the National Rifle Association, flies in semi-regularly. There are upstart Facebook groups — including the Salt Lake City Day of Resistance scheduled for Feb. 23. It would mark the third gun rally at the Capitol since Gun Appreciation Day in January when about 1,500 showed up.
But it’s Aposhian who is always present — striding through the halls with a Bluetooth headset in his ear and his phone constantly buzzing during 14-hour days during the 45-day legislative session.
Seated at a table near the gift shop in the lower level of the Capitol, the 48-year-old first-generation American of Armenian heritage talks in a semi-automatic staccato about how many guns he has at home (he won’t say the total, but it’s sizable) and how he got them (working at a gun store) and decides after much pondering that, yes, he does in fact, have an affinity for them. But the Oakland, Calif., native who has called Utah home for the past 22 years, said he doesn’t love guns.
“I don’t sit at home at night and fondle them,” he said.
As he’s talking, he flags down Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Lance Davenport and asks him for two minutes. He gets it — and much more. He met recently with Gov. Gary Herbert for 45 minutes. Dayton huddled with him at her office, too, for any sign of movement from him on her target-shooting bill.
“Even though I’m pretty pro-gun, it doesn’t mean the pro-gun community always agrees with each other,” Dayton said. “I’ve been in some pretty intense meetings.”
Aposhian said in their recent private meeting Dayton “used the word ‘disappointed’ like seven times.”
By late Friday afternoon, he was wrapping up a meeting with House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City.
She is running a bill seeking to let victims of dating violence obtain protective orders — orders that, among other things, would prohibit the alleged perpetrator from possessing a gun. Aposhian didn’t show up at the committee hearing earlier in the week to testify.
Seelig said if he had spoken against it, it would’ve hurt HB50’s chances. Instead, it passed through the House Judiciary Committee 9-0.
“Yes, I think he’s powerful,” Seelig said.
The Utah Shooting Sports Council has opposed the bill, which has repeatedly failed in recent years, but she’s talking to Aposhian to try to move the group to a neutral position. That doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“It’s highly likely we’ll oppose the bill, but we have different levels of opposition,” Aposhian said. “If we do it, it’s unlikely to be a super-strong one. It’s not that we don’t feel strongly, but you have to pick your battles. When you have people like [Senator Curt] Bramble carrying it in the Senate … [Seelig’s] come a long way and our beef is with protective orders in general, not just this bill.”
By late evening Friday, Aposhian — dressed in a blue blazer with a small golden version of the state gun pinned on his right lapel — is headed off to talk to his seven-member board via conference call. A new bill has surfaced that would allow a firearm to be stored for up to 60 days at a police station in the event a family member feared a person was suicidal or emotionally unstable.
As he prepares to go out for Chinese food, he paused and said he wondered if he always has to talk about guns.
“I would love to not talk about guns at regular events,” he said. “I always feel like I’m on — like ‘Clark’s here, we’ve got to talk about guns.’ I’d just as soon not.”
HB76 • Would let all adult nonfelons in Utah carry a concealed weapon without a permit. (Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal)
HB114 • Would nullify any new federal gun-control law, make Utah firearms law supreme. (Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove)
HB268 • Would prohibit local police from charging a person with disorderly conduct for simply openly carrying a firearm. (Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield)
SB120 • Would give the state forester power to close off outdoor areas to target shooters during high-danger fire season. (Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem)
HB50 • Would let victims of dating violence get protective orders; current law allows only for married or cohabiting partners. The subject of a protective order would be prohibited from possessing a firearm. (Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City)
HB121 • Would allow a firearm to be stored for up to 60 days at a police station in the event a family member feared someone in the household was suicidal or emotionally unstable. (Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden)