The fervor for gun control may be fading — expanding background checks fell short in Congress, while recent polls show new gun-law support dropping below 50 percent — but lawmakers in Utah are tightening their grip on bills aimed at easing gun restrictions and combating federal encroachment.
Nine months out, Republican legislators are reloading for January.
That means a sequel for HB76, the controversial “constitutional-carry” measure vetoed last month by Gov. Gary Herbert, who argued “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And there is more in the holster from Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, one of the House’s young guns, who wants to outlaw federal gun-law enforcement in Utah and restore gun-ownership rights for felons convicted of unrelated crimes.
“I’ll always keep my eye on the target — that is, where the federal government is overstepping its authority,” Greene says. “The only way we get our country back is if we re-establish federalism.”
Greene says he may dust off HB114, which would restrict federal agents from imposing firmer federal gun laws in Utah. It stalled over the winter, even after explosive language — making it a felony for feds to seize guns from Utahns — was stripped.
He’s equally passionate about restoration of Second Amendment rights for felons, provided there is no tie between the crime and firearm use.
“What sense does it make to deny somebody their Second Amendment rights for a conviction of financial fraud?” Greene asks. “There needs to be a provision to reinstate those rights — I’m exploring that. Government is treading into unconstitutional territory when they deny those rights, particularly for the rest of a person’s life.”
GOP lawmakers may be emboldened by the U.S. Senate, which spurned the White House’s attempt to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, while broadening background checks for gun buyers.
A new Pew Research poll shows shows a 47 percent negative reaction to the Senate vote while 39 percent responded favorably to the move, and a USA Today poll showed support for the proposed gun-control legislation had dipped to 49 percent — down from 61 percent in polls as recently as February.
Cover-up • Gun-rights advocates also remain fired up over Herbert’s veto of HB76. And Senate sponsor Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, says the votes are in place to override the governor next time.
“We intend to bring it back again,” Christensen says. “It will easily carry a majority. We’ll do it early in the session so if the governor wants to veto it again, he’ll have to do it early in the session so we won’t have to have a special session.”
Some Republicans said they voted against an override based on the cost of an override session, rather than policy objections. Christensen says he will hold them to that come January.
“The bill is so simple,” he adds. “It lets an honest person simply cover up the gun. It doesn’t do anything else.”
The measure would allow adults to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, the initial sponsor, called the bill a convenience for ranchers who may accidently violate current law by covering a gun with a raincoat.
Still, the proposal evoked a swift rebuke from prominent law enforcement figures, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and Utah’s League of Women Voters.
Arkansas this month became the fifth state to approve a constitutional-carry law, with the measure set to take effect in July. Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona and Vermont already allow concealed carrying of weapons without a permit. Montana lets residents carry guns for hunting or protection without permits, but only outside the boundaries of cities or towns. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, this month vetoed an effort to extend the law statewide.
But if the politicians pushing gun rights are energized, so too is Utah Parents Against Gun Violence — a group determined to expose the “small, loud minority dominating this discussion.”
That from group co-founder Miriam Walkingshaw, who calls the continued effort to whittle away at Utah’s already lax gun laws irresponsible, if not surprising. “It doesn’t represent what the majority of Utah voters want,” she says, labeling HB76 “a message bill and a waste of the taxpayers’ money.”
“I don’t see that even people in Utah are going to forget about Newtown. It’s in our conscience,” Walkingshaw adds. “Every parent that drops their kid off at school certainly realizes if it can happen in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, it can happen in Utah. We’re not going to forget.”
Furor fading? • For the first time since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — when the slaughter of 20 first-graders in pastoral Connecticut hijacked the nation’s peace of mind — polls show national support for new gun laws below 50 percent.
In Utah, enthusiasm for gun control remained modest even when the tragedy was fresh, according to a January poll by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to believe on these questions we asked that Utahns would be more in favor of restrictions over time,” says the BYU center’s Quin Monson. “But the background checks were universally approved of, with 82 percent. You don’t get that kind of support for almost anything.”
Monson was surprised by that high number, “about 10 clicks lower is all” from the 92 percent of national backing for expanded background checks shortly after the shooting.
Even so, Greene argues the spike in gun-control support was destined to be short-lived. “As the emotion of crisis gets further and further in the rearview mirror,” he says, “people come to their senses.”
Greene also insists the Boston bombings demonstrate that government “cannot protect us.”
“Police had essentially shut down the city, done sweeps, cleared property. Then, after all that, a resident saw something was wrong. He found his boat cover pulled back, bloody clothes, so they must have missed the suspect,” Greene says. “Government has proven itself to be a fairly ineffective mechanism for providing security.”
Curt Oda, a longtime gun-rights backer and a Republican representative from Clearfield, concurs. He says the fervor is waning because the emotion over Newtown is fading. “None of these [gun control] laws would have made a difference.”
Oda remains careful but confident that lawmakers in Utah will loosen gun laws next year. “If the bills are reintroduced, what will happen?” he asks rhetorically. “With the governor we’ve got, probably the same result. I mean veto. But with regard to the votes to override, I’m a little bit more optimistic.”
At a glance
Utah legislators vow in January to resurrect HB76, a “constitutional-carry” bill that would allow Utahns to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. The measure was vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert, and GOP lawmakers fell short of securing enough votes for an override. HB114, elevating Utah’s firearms statutes over federal laws, may also be reprised. The HB114 sponsor also wants to restore gun-ownership rights for felons convicted of non-gun-related crimes.