Robert Gehrke: Utah will likely do away with concealed firearms permits. Here are the problems with that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

There’s a legend about a cowboy out in the woods with a pistol on his side, when it started to rain. This old cowpoke put on a jacket and, just like that, was hassled by law enforcement for carrying an illegally concealed firearm.

The story always seemed fishy to me, but it’s been told so many times around Utah’s Capitol that it has taken on a life of its own.

Naturally, it was told again as the House debated — or went through the motions of debating — HB60, which would let anyone over the age of 21 carry a concealed weapon without a permit. It passed in the House and is now in the Senate.

In past years, the one obstacle to passing the legislation has been Gov. Gary Herbert, who vetoed it in 2013 and kept it in check in subsequent years by threatening to veto it again, if it made it to his desk.

Herbert had argued three basic points:

1. Utah’s concealed weapons system worked fine;

2. There is value in people receiving some modicum of training, paltry as it may be;

3. It’s worthwhile to have applicants undergo a basic criminal background check.

He was right about all three. But now Herbert has ridden off into the sunset, like our potentially real cowboy, and his replacement, Gov. Spencer Cox, has said he will sign the bill.

Lawmakers have been bombarded this week with emails for and against it, but most of that won’t do much to change the course of the legislation. It will pass and it will become law.

Gun advocates, like Utah Shooting Sports Council Chairman Clark Aposhian, says people shouldn’t freak out about it.

“I really think the perception is this is a big leap. It really isn’t,” he said. Sixteen states have already enacted similar laws and the Montana House passed legislation last week.

That’s true to a point. But there are some safeguards we’ll be losing.

For one thing, the state Bureau of Criminal Identification will lose its ability to at least try to prevent people convicted of a crime from carrying concealed firearms.

Last year alone, BCI rejected 1,892 applications for concealed weapons permits — the most denials of any time in the program’s history — for things like alcohol violations, protective orders and felony convictions.

Furthermore, it revoked the permits of 783 individuals and suspended the permits of 1,813 others.

In the past five years, BCI rejected 7,227 concealed weapon permit applications, revoked 3,391 and suspended 3,648.

Some of those are certainly out-of-staters getting a Utah permit — roughly two-thirds of all valid Utah concealed weapons permits are held by non-Utahns — and in cases with domestic violence or protective orders, the individual is prohibited from having a gun.

But there will be a not-insignificant number of gun owners who want to carry a concealed firearm who shouldn’t, and we lose the ability to at least try to stop them.

We also lose an important suicide prevention tool, according to Jenn Oxborrow, the former executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. Last year, more than 160,000 permit applicants received suicide prevention training as part of the concealed weapons course.

Not only that, she said, they fell largely into a demographic — white male gun-owners — who studies have shown are most likely to take their lives with a firearm.

Oxborrow also points to a recent study from Missouri that found that reducing permit requirements for firearms resulted in a 47% increase in homicide and a 22% increase in youth suicide (although the study was not directly about concealed firearm permits).

An amendment to the bill would earmark revenues from concealed weapons permits for suicide prevention — an attempt to mitigate the reduced suicide education.

In addition, prosecutors will lose the ability to charge people with the crime of carrying an illegal concealed weapon if HB60 passes. According to data from the Utah Courts, there have been 230 individuals charged with carrying an illegal concealed weapon in the past five years — 95 of them in Salt Lake County, 38 in Weber and 29 in Utah County.

The opportunity to have more concealed weapons in the hands of unvetted owners should be a cause for concern.

The Utah Law Enforcement Legislative Committee — made up of representatives from the state’s police chiefs, sheriffs association, highway patrol, prosecutors and others — took a position opposing the bill, but that may change after the suicide prevention amendment was added.

“I think anybody in law enforcement and prosecutors would say the proliferation of guns in our community is a concern, because when those guns are present, we see the violence they cause, the damage they cause and the anxiety it causes for law enforcement when they have to be constantly vigilant about their own safety,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who has a concealed weapon permit.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said the data has shown that is not the case — that states that have adopted some form of permitless concealed carry laws have not seen an increase in violent crime (although that assertion is based, in part, on a pro-gun researcher whose work has been widely criticized).

On that point, there seems to be room to improve this bill. If we’re going to venture down this road, it would make sense to include a sunset date, with the bill expiring after three years. We can then gather and analyze Utah data to see what the impacts are on violent crime and suicide. If, as Brooks believes, it doesn’t change, then extend it. If violent acts increase, like Oxborrow warns may happen, then it’s time to reconsider.

We could also do what Washington state did by allowing concealed carry without a permit by individuals who are recreating outdoors — fishing, hunting, camping and so forth. That would address the concerns of the cowboy in the anecdote, without lending to a potential increase in concealed guns in cities.

I’m not holding my breath that the Legislature will do any of those things. But maybe, now that pro-gun groups are on the verge of winning a fight they have been hungry to win for years, we can start having a larger conversation about how to curb gun deaths — expanding the use of gun locks, stepping up suicide awareness, closing gun show loopholes, keeping weapons out of the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence and finally making progress on “red-flag” laws intended to keep guns away from people suffering from mental illness.

Those issues are not simply anecdotes. They’re real and they are issues where there should be room to find common ground and hopefully make a difference in the lives and safety of Utah residents.

Correction: Feb. 2, 6:50 p.m. • The article has been updated to correct Jenn Oxborrow’s title.