SALT LAKE CITY — A bill proposed for the 2012 Utah Legislature would prohibit a person who is lawfully carrying a firearm in public from being charged with non-firearm related crimes such as disorderly conduct or disturbing the operation of a school.
HB49, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, states that, “… in the absence of additional threatening behavior, the otherwise lawful possession of a firearm … whether visible or concealed” would not in itself constitute a violation of various criminal statutes.
The statutes specified by the bill also include failure to leave a higher education campus when ordered, failure to disperse, disrupting a meeting or procession, threatening with or using a dangerous weapon in a fight, and several others, according to the current version of the bill.
The initial version of the bill is only a very rough draft and Ray said he is working with gun rights advocates, prosecutors and others to create an extensive revision.
“What you’re seeing isn’t what you’re going to get,” he said.
Ray expects the new version of the “Firearms Revisions” bill to be completed late this week.
The bill’s purpose is to clarify when a person lawfully carrying a gun in public, concealed or not, might be charged with disorderly conduct or other crimes that are not explicitly gun-related.
For example, if someone with a permit is carrying a concealed weapon and it inadvertently becomes visible, could they be charged with brandishing a weapon?
The impetus for the bill stems from a January incident at University Mall in Orem, he said. On Jan. 15, Philip W. Taylor, a 51-year-old Orem man, was walking along the sidewalk adjacent to the mall with an assault rifle slung over his back and carrying a handgun.
Orem police responded to the scene after receiving several 911 calls from alarmed shoppers.
An officer approached Taylor and ordered him: “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Taylor responded, “Utah is open carry, officer.”
Asked why he had a gun on him, Taylor again replied, “Utah is open carry.”
“Not open carry for an assault rifle,” the officer replied.
Taylor was handcuffed and detained for a few minutes, while officers determined the guns were unloaded.
While Taylor was not breaking the law for carrying the guns openly, police called his actions reckless and he was charged with disorderly conduct, a class C misdemeanor. It was also not the first time police had stopped Taylor over carrying firearms.
"We dealt with him in the middle of December (2010), two days back-to-back for the exact same thing, walking down the street with guns that were not loaded, and in both of those circumstances, we checked him out and let him go like we did here," said Orem Police Sgt. Craig Martinez.
Taylor was later convicted, fined $500 and placed on 12 months of probation. Terms of his probation require that he seek mental health evaluation and treatment, according to court documents.
Ray said he has no problem with how the Orem incident was handled by law enforcement. His proposed law is not aimed at changing anything in what happened in that situation, he said.
Rather, the University Mall incident merely highlighted the need to clarify when authorities may charge a person who is lawfully and peacefully carrying a weapon with other offenses, Ray said.
Would the bill mean a person could openly carry an assault rifle into a school or a mall?
“I would think you honestly could do that now,” Ray said. As an open-carry state, “Utah law says anyone (who is acting lawfully) would be able to openly carry guns anywhere.”
In an email, gun control advocate Steven Gunn said, “The bill appears to be an attempt to clarify ambiguities in existing Utah statutes about open-carrying firearms; however, it seems to expand the rights of gun owners to display such weapons, not merely to codify the status quo.”
As it is now written, the bill would make it harder for private property owners, such as store and mall owners, to exclude someone from their property who is openly carrying a gun, Gunn said. And it also makes it clear that guns can be openly carried at political gatherings, he said.
The bill expands gun rights at the expense of private property rights and of fostering political dialogue, Gunn said.
“Representative Ray chooses to cater to extremists rather than those who seek public dialogue and open expression of unpopular views,” he wrote.
Other provisions of the current HB49 say that local authorities may not enact laws that place any restriction on the lawful possession of firearms without explicitly referring to the specific state law that grants them such authority. And any law that does not meet that requirement would become void, according to the bill.
Gunn, who is a board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said such language would seem to invalidate local ordinances that treat the open carry of guns as a breach of peace, he said.
“The bill therefore treats open carry on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City the same as open carry in, say, Woodruff or Marysvale,” he wrote in the email.
Ray says the final version of the bill will have input from various people and be widely acceptable to law enforcement authorities, local officials, gun owners and others.
“We’ve invited everyone to the table,” he said.