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Fire-prevention bill pulled from Utah Senate due to gun-rights criticism

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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) View of Dump Fire in Saratoga Springs-Eagle Mountain area in Saratoga Springs, Utah on June 22, 2012.

By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 01 2013 02:42PM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:31PM

Gun enthusiasts shot down Friday, at least temporarily, a bill to allow the state forester to restrict target shooting when it would create a high risk of wildfires — a huge concern in last year’s extreme wildfire season.

Ironically, SB120 is being pushed by two gun-rights advocates. Its main sponsor is Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, and its House sponsor is Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield. Both are National Rifle Association members, and Oda is even an instructor for those seeking concealed-carry permits.

Dayton says gun activists started a war on social media against the bill, she believes, because it is the first bill this session dealing with guns and she says they are confused about what it would do. So as the Senate started to debate the measure Friday, she pulled it and told senators that she may not bring it up again.

"I think I have the votes, but you don’t want to go against the communities with which you align yourself," Dayton said in an interview. "I’ve always been a Second Amendment rights person."

She noted that last year after target shooting start some large wildfires, state leaders considered calling a special session of the Legislature to pass such a bill. They decided instead to allow the forester to work with local and other authorities to issue restrictions, but decided to make his authority clearer with SB120.

Dayton said she thought she had built a consensus for the bill, and it easily passed through committees. But then the social media attack began.

"Gun issues right now are just a tender subject because of the tragedies" and worry over losing gun rights, Dayton said. Even though they are fighting her bill, she said, "I’m quite excited by the fact that Second Amendment folks are so anxious to have their voices heard, because I am one of them."

She said she will try to meet with gun rights groups to explain the need for the bill, and how she believes it does not hurt the right to bear arms. "I’m trying to give some comfort to people who feel like their rights are threatened," she said.

Senate leaders expressed some concern that not moving the bill could hurt the state’s ability to prevent fires.

"Having the tools to prevent these wildfires saves the state a lot of money," said Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. He also talked of saving homes and wildlife, and preventing smoky pollution.

State law prohibits any local regulation of firearms. By July of last year, about 20 wildfires had been started by target shooters.

The Dump Fire, started by two target shooters, ignited June 21 in dry grass near a landfill in Saragota Springs. It burned 5,507 acres and cost $2.1 million to fight. On Tuesday, a Payson man was charged in federal court with starting a wildfire last fall after using tracer ammunition rounds.

In all, more than $50 million was spent fighting wildfires last year in Utah.

In related action on Friday, the House Business and Labor Committee unanimously endorsed HB289 to allow local officials to ban fireworks when conditions create wildfire hazard only in areas that are mountainous, covered with brush or forests, are part of an urban-wildland interface, or in farm areas.

That bill would also bar local jurisdictions from otherwise prohibiting fireworks that are allowed by state law.

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