Utah House OKs move to let Utah adults carry guns without permit

Democratic lawmakers and two Republicans opposed the measure.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, speaks at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. HB60, which would allow concealed carry of a firearm without a permit, was passed by the Utah House on Tuesday and now heads to the Senate.

A proposal to let law-abiding adults in Utah carry a concealed firearm without a permit moved one step closer to final passage on Tuesday, breezing through the House of Representatives on a largely party-line vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Walt Brooks, argued to his House colleagues that concealed-carry permits do nothing to suppress gun violence and said 19 states have dispensed with the requirement.

“Because I’m allowed to put my jacket over my gun does not increase suicide,” Brooks, R-St. George, said shortly before the House passed his bill 54-19. Similarly, he added, these permits do nothing to prevent childhood deaths or injuries related to improperly secured guns.

Current Utah law requires a concealed-carry permit applicant to go through a criminal background check and to receive firearms familiarity instruction on gun laws. It also requires a gun owner to demonstrate he or she can safely load and unload a firearm.

State lawmakers have made several attempts to enact so-called constitutional carry bills, but they’ve foundered because of opposition from former Gov. Gary Herbert. The measure’s prospects have improved significantly this year now that newly inaugurated Gov. Spencer Cox has signaled his support for it.

Before passing the bill, House representatives altered HB60 to stipulate that excess dollars in the concealed-carry permit fund would support suicide prevention efforts focused on educating people about the safe storage of firearms.

All 17 House Democrats opposed Brooks’ bill, and two Republicans split from the rest of their caucus to join them.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Merrill Nelson, said he’s strongly supportive of Second Amendment rights but that all constitutional provisions exist in tension with one another — pointing out that religious freedoms don’t give people the right to perform human sacrifice. And concealed-carry permits are a reasonable guardrail to the right to bear arms, he said.

A hidden firearm is inherently more dangerous than a visible one, Nelson contended, saying for example that a state trooper would have the opportunity to see and respond to an agitated constituent openly carrying a gun at the Utah Capitol. The argument that laws are useless in regulating lawbreakers doesn’t hold water either, since the same logic could be applied to any part of the criminal code, the Grantsville Republican said.

“So what about rape laws, robbery laws, murder laws? We’re going to have bad guys commit all of those crimes,” Nelson said. “Do we repeal those laws just because bad guys ignore them or do they serve some purpose? And my position is that they do serve a purpose.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said the perception that HB60 would threaten public safety also matters, especially as the distinction between “good guys” with guns and those who pose a threat has gotten increasingly muddy.

“I would argue that many of those people that were insurrectionists that went to the Capitol would be considered by some to be ‘good guys.’ But do you know who their enemies are and the people they were looking for?” the Holladay Democrat said. “They are people in my party, they are people of color, and those people are all in my party.”

On the other hand, Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, called HB60 a “landmark bill” and said the state can find more effective ways of addressing gun violence and suicide than imposing permit requirements. Hidden firearms provide a better sense of safety and security, he said, and he expects “there’s a number of people in this very chamber that are carrying concealed right now, and we don’t even know it.”

Gun safety advocates swiftly denounced Tuesday’s vote and said the current permitting system serves an important purpose by exposing gun owners to safety and suicide prevention trainings. Firearms are the leading cause of death for Utah’s children and teens, and the state has the nation’s eighth-highest rate of gun suicides, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.

“Once again our lawmakers seem to be more concerned with the gun lobby’s priorities than public safety,” Mary Ann Thompson, a volunteer leader with the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a prepared statement. “Gun suicide accounts for a large majority of the gun violence in Utah. Gutting life-saving suicide training is not only irresponsible, but also reckless and dangerous. Utahns deserve better.”

Now that Brooks’ measure has passed the House, it will head to the Senate for consideration.