Rifle-toting biathletes at the 2002 Winter Games won't face the problem they did this year in Japan, where strict gun-control laws cramped their training regimens.

Indeed, the problem for Olympic organizers here is a complete reversal from Nagano - loose gun laws that barring amendment would allow spectators to pack heat to the events.Make no mistake, the stereotype of the Wild West endures in Utah, where the right to own a gun is akin to the right to worship. An estimated 68 percent of the population own guns, some schools close down for the deer hunting opener and residents with a clean record can easily get a permit to carry a concealed weapon nearly anywhere.

"Gun owners are the majority in this state," boasts Joe Venus, president of the Utah Gun Rights Association. "When a gun issue comes up and it's time to put pressure on your senator or representative, their phones ring."

Lawmakers should brace for a blizzard of calls come January, when a bill is filed and gun advocates, Olympic organizers and security chiefs try to carve out an exception for the 2002 Winter Games.

Given the International Olympic Committee's unequivocal policy banning guns from the games, it's no surprise the explosive issue is surfacing more than three years before the 2002 opening ceremonies.

What is surprising is that the traditionally rigid Utah gun lobby made the first overture toward surrendering its weapons for the 17-day duration of the games.

"We've been working on it for a month or so," said Sen. Mike Waddoups, a Taylorsville Republican who will sponsor the proposed legislation. "We thought we ought to get ahead a little."

Indeed, timing is key to the gun advocates.

"While we have our power it's in our favor to get this resolved," Venus said. "That way we can control the tempo."

But Rob Bishop, a former state House speaker and now lobbyist for the Utah Shooting Sports Council, cautions against expectations the state Legislature will settle the question next year.

And the Salt Lake Organizing Committee is just as coy about the possibility of cutting a deal. SLOC spokeswoman Shelley Thomas would only say, "We had a conversation."

Gun control and the Olympics came into conflict in 1995 when the Utah Legislature passed one of the most liberal gun laws in the country. The law allows residents with concealed-weapon permits to carry their guns "without restriction," except in "secured areas," such as jails, courts and airports.

The law also made it easier to obtain such a permit; some 18,000 residents now have them.

Since passage of the concealed-carry law, controversy has erupted over whether gun bans at schools, government offices, churches or private business can legally apply to someone with a concealed-weapon permit.

The Olympics unavoidably fell into the mix because of the IOC's stance that the public cannot be armed at Olympic events. In fact, tickets are embossed with the edict banning weapons at venues.

"The expectation by the worldwide Olympic family . . . is that there will not be guns at Olympic venues," said Mike Moran, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The fans agree. A recent informal poll on the USOC's Internet site found 91 percent of respondents believe spectators should not be allowed to carry concealed firearms into Olympic events.

Recognizing the strong emotions the issue generates, SLOC's only interest is in obtaining an exception for the 2002 Games, while staying clear of the larger question of gun control in Utah, Thomas said.

That is something the gun lobby can live with, although advocates can be expected to drive a hard bargain.

"If you roll over on the Olympics . . . pretty soon you're rolling over on everything and your foundation's getting wiped out," warned Venus.

He said he doubts any of his members would even attend an Olympic competition, let alone bring a gun. Nor does he see the need to carry a weapon to Olympic venues already crawling with federal, state and local police.

"What we're doing here is dancing around principles," Venus said.

State Public Safety chief Craig Dearden, who also is heading the multiagency security command for the 2002 Olympics, said one of the major sticking points will be whether to let people who pass through metal detectors check their guns at the door, or whether guns can be banned altogether from shuttle buses and entry gates.

State law requires that secured areas provide a place to store weapons, which would pose nightmarish logistical problems for Olympic organizers, who don't want guns anywhere near the venues.

Waddoups, the gun lobby's point man in the Legislature, and Bishop said the Olympics is a narrow enough issue that an exception can be crafted to satisfy everyone.

"The fact that the Olympics are something that will be here and be gone (means) that we can maybe work something out," Bishop said.

But the powerful gun lobby isn't the only hurdle to clear in exempting the Olympics from state gun laws. Waddoups and Bishop also fear anti-gun advocates will try to shoehorn the volatile issue of concealed weapons in schools and churches into an Olympics-gun bill.

Waddoups warns that any attempt to overload his bill will be "the kiss of death."

Said Bishop: "If we can keep everything narrow, and don't make it a morality play, then solutions can be found."