SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Sabatino is pondering the donuts and drinks as he stands in the hotel meeting room, a little bleary-eyed from a cross country flight and a drive through all the snow that accumulated overnight. He'll fly home to New York less than 24 hours after starting this first-ever trip to Utah, his sole goal to attend this five-hour class.
Tired or not, though, he's attentive as he learns to teach the class that will provide his East Coast neighbors a popular prize: A Utah concealed firearm permit.
There is perhaps no easier place in the United States to get a gun, or a permit to carry one around, than the Beehive State, a place that seems to love guns as much as its pioneer heritage.
Utah is the first and only state to choose an official gun to go with its state flower and flag and bird — the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol — courtesy of the most recent legislative session (it's a nod to the fact that gun maker John Browning was born here not long after Mormon pioneers settled the area). Utah's concealed firearm permit is a favorite with gun enthusiasts all over the United States. A whopping three-fourths of those who applied for one last year, more than 51,000 people, came from outside the state.
Guns trade hands freely here, as well. In 2010, firearms dealers ran more than 127,000 background checks of Utah gun buyers, but that's likely a fraction of the guns sold in the state. No one knows how many guns are sold among friends or passed to a new owner in a parking lot in a private deal. There's talk of a flourishing black market, since private sales aren't monitored and the law doesn't require a background check for those, something licensed dealers must get. Sources suggest the big taboos — selling guns to minors, to criminals, to those who live in another state — occur often enough to be worrisome, but they are mostly uncounted and unchecked.
On KSL.com, one of the places where buyers and sellers meet, about 750 handguns are listed for sale at any given time and there churn in constant, and to some, alarming. Most of the guns seem to sell in just days, replaced by new listings for different weapons. In February alone, 2,436 handgun postings were carried, with everything from Glocks to Rugers to the Draco AK-47 pistol.
The fact that some of those guns end up in the hands of criminals has caused management at KSL.com, which is owned by the same company as the Deseret News, to consider whether it should continue to list firearms, or at least handguns (see accompanying story).
"We want to better understand the possibility of people using KSL Classifieds to circumvent gun laws," said KSL.com general manager Brett Atkinson, who noted that the matter will be investigated carefully over the next month.
In a country with plenty of gun lovers, Utah manages to stand out. It is here that guns are allowed on public university campuses statewide, either carried openly or concealed with a state-issued permit. A few states are debating following Utah's lead, but currently there is no other state that allows guns on all public campuses.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is one of Utah's most ardent advocates of Second Amendment rights. Last legislative session, he sponsored the bill naming the state firearm and also tried unsuccessfully to do away with concealed weapons permits. Under the Second Amendment, he said, the permit isn't needed.
Unabashed in his passion for guns, Wimmer could be seen on the House floor with his own sidearm strapped to his belt. He is proud of Utah's gun-rich history.
"Utah is a very traditional, conservative state, where we believe in the Second Amendment right to bear arms," said Wimmer. "Guns are a big part of our state tradition. If you think of the Mormon Pioneers, I mean, they came into the valley holding a plow in one hand, and a gun in the other. Guns are a tool, nothing else but a tool."
Google guns and Utah and you'll probably find a reference to the state's new state icon. But if you mention Utah to an avid gun lover somewhere else, you are much more likely to hear about the state's concealed firearm permit, one of the most popular and controversial from coast to coast. There's even a chance that the gun lover can show you what one looks like. In 2010 alone, 15,817 Utah residents and 51,941 people who live outside of Utah applied for the document, which allows someone to carry a gun concealed and loaded not just in Utah, but in a slew of other states. Sixteen states have a written agreement to recognize the permit and 17 acknowledge the permit's validity less formally.
Part of the lure outside Utah's borders is that wide permit recognition rate. Here's another: To get the Utah concealed firearm permit, you don't have to step foot in the state. You don't even need to know where Utah is on the map. You can take the class wherever you find it, but you do need to learn Utah's laws when it comes to a bunch of topics, from what constitutes justifiable force to where weapons are prohibited. It's easy to locate a Utah CFP class because people like Sabatino are teaching it in not only the states that recognize the permit, but in the states that don't, from California to Connecticut, Alabama to Alaska.
Sixteen states do not recognize Utah concealed firearm permit, including Sabatino's New York. The numbers are fluid, laws changing with each legislature's mood. Texas, for instance, is considering not recognizing anyone's permit but its own. New Mexico and Nevada stopped recognizing Utah's after some of its residents opted to skip the home-state version in favor of Utah's. And Utah responded: If you live in a state that reciprocates, starting with renewals or new applications in 2012 and beyond, you must get your own state's concealed firearm permit before you get Utah's. That may mollify those states. Colorado and Florida both recognize the permit, but only when it is held by a Utah resident.
While the Second Amendment protects the right of an American citizen to keep and bear arms, laws have been put into place to regulate just how guns are carried, stored and transported and that is where a concealed firearm permit comes in. The CFP bridges the constitutional right and a state's ability to have a say in how you go about it. Under the Second Amendment, you can own a firearm and have it on your property. Move it elsewhere, though, and laws differ. Under the amendment alone, you have to keep the firearm visible and unloaded, apart from its ammunition.
Unloaded doesn't actually mean empty. Lt. Doug Anderson, who manages the CFP/Brady programs in Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification, said state law deems a firearm unloaded if it takes two separate actions to fire it. A CFP allows you to conceal the weapon — and to have it loaded, too.
People seek the permit for different reasons. One might view it as a form of protection, while another believes it will make his job a little easier. Matthew C. DeLong, for 18 years a professor of pistol marksmanship at the University of Utah who also oversees the national championship shooting club, got his permit so he could keep his gun on the front seat of his car as he drove to work, instead of having to lock it in the trunk, away from his ammo. There is a difference, he said, between those who want a permit for protection and those who want it for sport. He believes becoming an expert shot is a form of mental discipline.
Attorney Gary Sackett is embarrassed by the same gun-loving attitude that makes Wimmer so proud of Utah. He thinks it makes Utah a laughing stock. "Nobody likes to have their state held up to ridicule," he said. "It's off the edge to not only being friendly to gun owners, but encouraging gun ownership from throughout the country. ...It sends the same message a state gun sends: We are obsessed with firearms." And he believes it will ultimately hurt Utah's efforts to bring in outside businesses.
"If I'm looking to locate some place, that may not be the only thing I'm looking at, but I am looking for a place for employees to live and be employed and this is all kind of negative," said Sackett, a board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah. Still, he conceded, it's not easy to find Utahns who will vocally support any type of gun control. He said he feels like his side is losing ground.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, disputes the criticism that Utah's permit is one of the easiest to obtain, calling it misinformation spread by the "anti-gun" people, whom he called "liars."
Oda, a staunch conservative and ardent gun rights advocate, sponsored several firearm-related bills during the just-concluded legislative session, including one that reduced the size of the gun-free zones around schools, and another that reduced the cost of a concealed weapon permit, while increasing the cost of renewing such a permit. He said the bigger issue is freedom and rights.
"This isn't about gun rights. Guns don't have rights. People have rights. This is about the ability to defend yourself and others. Why are people afraid of law-abiding citizens having guns? They should be afraid of criminals having them." And while Utah is certainly a good place for a gun lover to live, it's not the only place, Oda said. "People in Utah understand that the right to carry a gun is something they should have the right to do, but we are not unique. There are many other states with gun laws similar, or more lax than ours."
Laws addressing concealed firearm permits (CFP) date back to before the Civil War, but the early renditions were concerned not with granting permission, but with banning concealment of the weapons someone carried. That started changing around 1911 when notorious New York politician Timothy Sullivan became one of the first to make concealed- carrying legal, for a then-steep price of $3. For a century now, laws concerning concealed-carry have been negotiated and have spread across the nation.
Utah has always been one of the most gun-friendly in its use of legislation. But that approach has its detractors.
Salt Lake attorney Steven H. Gunn dislikes the notion that anything which would restrict owning or carrying a gun is a bad thing.
"I think there can be reasonable restrictions that allow people to defend themselves with firearms if it's necessary — which it seldom is," said Gunn, who also serves as a board member for the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah. For example, he said, he favors limiting availability of particularly dangerous weapons, like machine guns and semi-automatics. He cited the example of David Ragsdale, who in 2008 shot and killed his wife in the parking lot of an LDS ward in Lehi. A permit holder, Ragsdale had the gun in his glove box and later told the Deseret News it would not have happened had the gun not been right there.
"My feeling is generally that the proliferation of firearms in our society, be they carried in public places or stored in residences, leads far more often to deaths that are not warranted or injuries that are not warranted than to protection," Gunn said,
The journal Trauma in 1998 concluded that a gun kept in the home is 22 times more likely to be misused than be helpful for protection, he said. He believes the study is still true,
Sackett agreed. "I don't think an armed society is a safe society. The more there are guns in the hands of people — particularly people who are not really trained — the more likely there will be an accident or rash action that wouldn't happen in the absence of firearms."
In Tucson recently, when a gunman killed six and wounded 12, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, some reports said someone in the crowd ran and grabbed his own gun, then came back and almost mistakenly shot one of the people who was helping the wounded. That anecdote resonates with Sackett, who said that "concerns about people not really knowing what to do and doing something stupid or thoughtless or dangerous in my view overcomes any notion of being able to act in self defense. I have no problem with someone having a gun in their house if it makes them feel safer to ward off an intruder, although I think the chance of something going wrong is more likely than being able to plug a burglar...."
Regardless of detractors, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which issues Utah concealed firearm permits from within the Department of Public Safety, is a very busy place. Every week, it receives about 2,700 pieces of mail, most of it related to applications for the permit, said Anderson, the permit program manager.
You can take the CFP class and also renew the permit from far away. But you must come to Utah to take the teacher's course — and return every three years for a refresher. "Otherwise, we miss you," Anderson quipped during a Saturday class in late February at the Hampton Inn in Jordan Landing.
They warn that they monitor courses overtly and covertly both in and out of state to see that what's prescribed in Utah law is being taught. "Physically monitoring Utah concealed firearm permit courses outside of the state of Utah does have its limitations," concedes trainer Jeff Dunn, BCI investigator. "However, it's possible and it has occurred."
Most of the monthly classes draw about 70 registrants, said BCI criminal information tech II Laura Gayler. A peek at the class sign-in sheet showed would-be trainers from Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Maryland and New York, among other states. Only about a dozen of them were from Utah.
Once back home, these course instructors, who must also have taken the National Rifle Association training class, will have some latitude to teach the course their own way, but they have to cover all the elements required by Utah law, including gun safety, so their students can get their permits.
Forget scrapbooking as a fun group activity. A year ago, Laurie Tye put together a party spread and invited about 15 friends and relatives to her Taylorsville home for a Utah CFP class. After the lecture, while the instructor filled out paperwork and took fingerprints and photographs, cousins and uncles and longtime friends nibbled the refreshments and visited. By night's end, they were all permit holders.
Tye, who has six kids and writes children's books and cowboy poetry, half a decade ago was crowned Mrs. Utah Intercontinental. She said she hopes to never have to use her gun. But she's a good shot and won't hesitate to defend herself or those she loves, she said.
By the numbers, the concealed firearm permit looks like a moneymaker for Utah, with nearly a quarter-million applications since 2006. But officials say the application fee basically just covers the cost.
Not everyone who applies receives a permit, either. In January, for example, 50 applications were denied. Criminal records are the most common "disqualifier" and the offense and when it occurred are among the factors.
BCI runs daily checks against national crime records and suspends or revokes permits when it encounters reports of certain arrests or convictions. In that same January, BCI temporarily suspended 43 of the permits it had already granted and revoked another 44.
Another training course attendee, Jason Schafer, planned a 3,500 mile car trip last summer with his two young children based largely on where the Utah concealed firearm permit is honored.
During the 13-state junket to see family members and old Marine buddies, he kept his gun within reach. The exceptions were Maryland and Illinois. Before entering either state, he had to pull over and unload his gun, then store the gun and ammunition separately. Not so, though, as they wound their way through Utah permit-friendly states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. He used a different permit for Kansas.
"When you're traveling across the country, staying in hotels, driving late at night — It's just one of those things that even at 3 in the afternoon, if you're at a truck stop somewhere or a restaurant and, God forbid, someone decides to take the kids, it's nice to have the legal ability to protect them. I have the God-given right to do that."
A Utah course instructor since 2001, he believes that "Utah has it right, with an exceptionally well-written training curriculum. It talks about not only basic safety but use of force." Each state defines justifiable force differently, he said, but Utah's are a "model for the rest of the country."
Ask advocates what they like about Utah's system and they echo Schafer's praise, starting with the reciprocity. If they get a Utah gun permit they don't have to do a background check when buying a gun in another state. Sports enthusiasts like the fact that they can carry a sidearm when they are on a bow hunt or archery hunt — not to shoot an animal, but to protect themselves. The Division of Wildlife Resources makes an allowance for that for permit holders.
Law enforcement folks like the extensive background check that goes with the issuance of a permit. While a permit holder isn't required to tell an officer that he or she has a permit or carries a gun, it may show up when an officer checks a driver license through state computers.
Still, controversy remains. Where the permit is in Utah recognized is probably the most contentious of topics, especially when it comes to colleges and churches. The University of Utah and the state of Utah went to war over guns on campus. The state prevailed. Those who have the permits can carry their guns on campus, hidden and loaded. DeLong said "guns have always been allowed on campus, through university-approved activities."
Individual places of worship have the right to ban guns in Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has placed a notice on the BCI website saying no guns allowed — currently the only faith in Utah that has done so.
There are also myths that have been used to scam the gullible. For the record, Anderson told the men and women training to be teachers, there are no "master" instructors or "advanced" permits, including one that lets you carry a badge. It doesn't exist. The permit is only available to American citizens and others who are in the country legally. And deadly force is never for protection of property.
Human life, the trainers said seriously, always trumps "things."