Utah weapons permits a hot commodity, but are adequate checks in place?
Utah's top exports are gold and computer chips, but the state's sought-after concealed-weapons permit is climbing up that list.
However, with hundreds of out-of-state instructors issuing tens of thousands of permits every year, some Utah instructors and state legislators are concerned the volume is straining the ability of Utah regulators to ensure the rigor of the courses.
"By and large the classes are being taught by dedicated professionals," said Clark Aposhian, a concealed-weapons instructor and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. "But as we know by sad experience, it just takes a few unscrupulous instructors to affect the perception in a poor way for everyone else. And as such, the integrity of the Utah permit suffers, and we watch the dominoes: As the integrity suffers, so does the reciprocity and so does the value [of the permit]."
One proposed solution, requiring licensed instructors to be Utah residents, is steadfastly opposed by the National Rifle Association and so polarizing that it has caused a rift in Utah's shooting community.
Brian Judy, a Utah lobbyist for the NRA, did not respond to a request for comment.
A simple Web search shows the popularity of Utah's permit, with scores of instructors across the country touting the benefits it's relatively inexpensive, fairly easy to get and is honored in 34 states.
It's those reciprocity agreements, however, that may be in jeopardy as states begin to question if instructors are rubber-stamping permits and Utah regulators are unable to monitor the quality of the courses.
Currently, there are 1,622 instructors licensed to teach Utah's concealed-weapons courses 1,124 of them live outside of Utah.
There are just three investigators at Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI)responsible for keeping tabs on those instructors. Last year, the program had out-of-state travel expenses of less than $7,000.
"[BCI] gets calls all the time from people who say instructors are rubber-stamping out-of-state," said Crystal Perry, a licensed instructor in Utah. "There's no way for them to regulate that."
Out of state • In 2011, the Utah BCI, which operates the concealed-weapons permit program, received 64,440 permit applications from out-of-state residents and 13,872 from Utahns. Likewise, through the first half of this year, BCI received 32,205 out-of-state applications, compared with 10,324 in-state.
Typically, more than 97 percent of the applicants are approved.
All told, nearly 60 percent of the more than 380,000 concealed weapons permits in circulation are held by people in other states.
A report by the Government Accountability Office last month showed that no other state comes close to that rate. A third of Maine permits are issued to out-of-state residents, but there are only 6,000 in circulation. And about one in nine Florida permits is held by a non-resident.
Jason Chapman, who heads the program, said anyone who takes a course is asked to fill out a survey at the end and, in instances where instructors get bad reviews, the investigators have gone in and audited the classes.
"We do covert inspections," he said. "We go in and sign up with a person's course and go through their course and if it's not up to the standards" a license can be revoked, Chapman said.
Since 2009, BCI has revoked the licenses of five out-of-state instructors for "rubber-stamping" weapons permits, including two this year. Five others were issued warnings in 2012.
"They don't have the manpower to enforce in all 50 states, to enforce all these thousands of classes that are going on," said Aposhian, who added that the problem is not even actual rubber-stamping of permits.
"It's the perception, the perception from out-of-state legislators, out-of-state bureaucrats, that the Utah permits that their [residents] receive are not being administered or the classes for it are not being taught appropriately."
Once a state cancels its reciprocity agreement, it's very difficult to win it back.
Nevada stopped recognizing Utah permits a few years ago, saying standards for the Utah permit didn't meet the Silver State's requirements. New Mexico followed suit although Utahns argue that was more about those states losing permit revenue.
Texas considered ending its permit reciprocity with Utah until the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, in 2011 that now requires residents of states that issue a permit to get their home-state license before getting one from Utah.
Changes proposed • There is an NRA-backed bill in the U.S. Congress co-sponsored by Utah's entire delegation that would require any state to recognize a concealed-weapons permit issued by any other state. The measure passed the House in November but is not expected to get through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, himself a concealed-weapons instructor, said that, if the instructors want to avoid changes, they need to start taking matters into their own hands.
"They need to start self-policing better," said Oda. "If they've got instructors they know aren't doing the things they're supposed to, they need to self-police better."
Oda said another option, rather than having students take a voluntary survey at the end of the course, would require them to fill out the survey before they can receive their permits. That would give BCI a more effective tool to flag bad instructors.
The most controversial proposal would be to require all instructors to be Utah residents. Oda said that would allow BCI to more closely monitor instructors and audit courses.
But hundreds of out-of-state instructors would be put out of business.
"It would just ruin it for us," said Byron Hibshman, a Southern California instructor who teaches the Utah course about once a month. He said the surveys in place now help BCI identify bad instructors and hopefully weed them out.
Requiring instructors to be Utah residents "is not going to solve the problem. You can have a bad apple in Utah as well as out of Utah," Hibshman said. "[Utah instructors] just don't want anyone else teaching the course."
Perry acknowledges the move would benefit the Utah instructors, but she sees no problem with the Utahns who have worked to make the state's permit a sought-after commodity benefiting.
"I'm not going to deny that fact," she said. "But why is the gun industry different from any other industry? How many Utah industries do we have where we create a monopoly because it benefits Utah?"
The NRA opposes it and the Utah Shooting Sports Council, which had supported it in the past, withdrew its support and ousted Perry from the USSC board over her support for the residency requirement.
Oda said discussions are still ongoing with the NRA on the residency issue, and he doesn't know if legislation will be introduced in the coming session. He said the No. 1 priority has to be making sure the Utah permit is protected for Utahns.
Those outside the state who want the permit are a secondary concern.
Aposhian, who stresses that he's not speaking for USSC, said something needs to be done to keep those people who have the Utah permit from losing their ability to protect themselves.
"When these instructors, for the want of a buck and I don't care if they're in-state or out-of-state when they rubber-stamp, it affects something much, much bigger," said Aposhian. "They're affecting the safety and security of every permit holder, not just those they teach. All 380,000."