This is our duty, to push back where the federal government continually expands its own authority. I don't see this as rebellious. —Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove
SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial bill asserting Utah's right to bar the enforcement of federal gun laws in the state passed the House 49-17 Friday after an often passionate debate.
"This is our duty, to push back where the federal government continually expands its own authority," the sponsor of HB114, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said. "I don't see this as rebellious."
Greene said his bill is about federalism, not gun rights. The states have not done enough to stop the budget crisis in Washington, D.C., or the federal health care reform law known as Obamacare, he said.
The current "frenzy" over gun control is a "golden opportunity" for Utah to stand up to the federal government, Greene said, calling on lawmakers to be vigilant.
"We do not announce our surrender before the battle has begun," he said.
The constitutionality of the bill, questioned at length in an attached note from legislative staff, was at the heart of the speeches given by a number of lawmakers on both sides of the issue.
With less than a week left before the session ends at midnight Thursday, the bill goes to the Senate.
"Colleagues, this is as important as it gets," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. "Why are we here if not to protect the inalienable rights" of Utahns?
Ivory called the right to bear arms in self-defense "the first law of nature."
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned the use of what he called amorphous terms to describe constitutional rights.
"This is not a God-given right we're talking about," King said. "This is a constitutional right. The two are not the same."
That prompted Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, to say that the "laws of nature and nature's God are self-evident" and that while people can differ in how they worship, "we have a common faith and a creator."
The bill was amended despite Greene's opposition. Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, proposed the amendment to make it clear the courts would have to clarify which federal gun laws would not be enforced in Utah to avoid the possibility of what he called "dueling law enforcement."
Powell said without the amendment, local law enforcement officials might feel compelled to stop federal agents from performing their duties even in instances not covered by the bill.
Greene argued unsuccessfully that that issue was resolved earlier when he removed language in the bill making it a third-degree felony for anyone to enforce federal gun laws in conflict with Utah code.
He complained that his bill has been misrepresented as "an attack on the federal government" in media reports. Before the session started in early January, Greene was cheered at an anti-gun control rally on the steps of the Capitol as he described his bill.
The bill followed a letter from the Utah Sheriffs' Association to President Barack Obama warning that the association would not enforce new restrictions on guns and ammunition proposed by the administration.
Gov. Gary Herbert has said he believes the state's laws on guns don't need to be changed and has cautioned lawmakers not to send him so-called "message bills that inflame rather than inform the discussion."
HB114 is one of two high-profile gun bills this session. The second, HB76, would allow Utahns to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. The "constitutional carry" bill passed the House more than a week ago but has not been heard by the Senate.
Senate leaders have not been enthusiastic about tackling the issue.
"We're going to be very cautious with the bill," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said of HB114. "We understand it's a skeleton of what it was before."
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he's getting more email from gun rights advocates who oppose the bill because they see it as hurtful rather than helpful.
House leaders were off the floor when HB114 was debated, finalizing budget details.
"It went about how I expected — a lot of support for the right to keep and bear arms," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. "We pride ourselves on having good debate."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy