‘I’m ... terrified!’ Utah state senator worried about potential for gun violence during legislative session

Sen. Derek Kitchen says ease of bringing guns to the state Capitol could put lawmakers, public at risk during time of intense political turmoil.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Heavily armed member of the Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist organization, flash the Q symbol as a small group carrying a Black Lives Matter flag walk amongst Trump supporters listening to speeches at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 6, 2021. The assembly occurred at the same time a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., resulting in the deaths of six and the second impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The Utah Capitol has long been a gun-friendly place. There are no metal detectors at the entrances and both the open and concealed carry of firearms is allowed, the latter with a permit.

Those rules were put in place long before right-wing activists stormed the U.S. Capitol last week in an effort to keep President Donald Trump in office after he lost the 2020 election. Now, with the political temperature ratcheted up, some Utah lawmakers are worried about what could happen when they get back to work next week.

“I’m f---ing terrified!” says Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “There are crazies out there, and they’re whipped up into a frenzy. It scares me, man.”

The Utah Capitol is off-limits to the public through next Thursday at least. Gov. Spencer Cox, who gives his first State of the State Address Thursday evening, declared a state of emergency after warnings from the FBI to state and local governments about possible violence stemming from President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The Legislature gavels to order on Tuesday.

Kitchen says Democratic legislators were given a security briefing on Friday by the Department of Public Safety. They were told once the restrictions on the public were lifted, the Utah Highway Patrol, which is responsible for security at the Capitol, bag checks would be implemented on members of the public, but they could not confiscate concealed weapons if the owner had a valid permit.

Kitchen took to Twitter to vent his displeasure.

“Lots of security threats coming our way, including this weekend. Did you know that Utah is only one of two states that cannot restrict firearms at the Capitol?” read one post. “You can’t bring spray paint into the Capitol, but that AK47? No problem!” said a second.

Kitchen claims Utah and Idaho are the only states that have no restrictions on the carrying of guns in their state capitol buildings. Michigan was another, but banned open carry of firearms inside on Monday. The Salt Lake Tribune could not verify Kitchen’s claim.

Pew reports about 30 state capitols use metal detectors, while 20 allow the legal carrying of firearms inside. The Giffords Law Center, a pro-gun control group, lists eight states that have specific restrictions on carrying weapons during meetings of the state legislature. Giffords lists another nine states that have limits on firearms in government-owned buildings, which may or may not apply to the state legislature.

Kitchen says he’s used to menacing messages coming his way from the public, but the tone of those messages and the surrounding environment is different, which has him extremely alarmed.

“If you scroll through my email or social media, there’s a fair amount of people who are pissed off that Donald Trump is leaving office, and they blame Democrats. People feel emboldened right now and I’m worried how far they will take it,” he said.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, says he understands the safety concerns but believes the Utah Highway Patrol will be able to handle any situation that may arise.

“We’ve seen other protests at the Capitol, many with guns present, and we’ve had no problem with the otherwise lawful carrying of firearms,” said Aposhian.

Aposhian is careful to point out he has no concerns about members of his group, who have been advised to stay away from any armed protests surrounding the inaugural activities. He also says he cannot guarantee that bad actors, which could include right-wing groups, Antifa or others, won’t cause trouble.

Kitchen also has a high degree of faith in the Highway Patrol’s ability to keep lawmakers safe, but he’s wary that the ease with which one could bring a gun into the Capitol makes the environment much less safe for legislators and members of the public.

“They’re going to do bag checks to make sure they’re not bringing in a destructive device or even a can of spray paint, but if there’s a gun, there’s not much they can do,” Kitchen said.

“To change that they would have to change the law,” said Aposhian. “They would have to make the Capitol a secure area” under the definition in state code.

“I just don’t see that happening in the people’s house,” he added.

In fact, it may get even easier to carry weapons into the Utah Capitol. Lawmakers will consider a bill to allow any Utahn to carry a concealed weapon without a permit so long as it’s legal for them to own a firearm. Gov. Spencer Cox has indicated he’s open to signing that legislation into law — a departure from his predecessor, Gary Herbert, who vetoed the measure.