I'm not trying to encourage gun use. I'm not trying to discourage gun use. I believe, in this country, we have a right to bear arms. A law-abiding citizen out to be able to exercise that right. —Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal
SALT LAKE CITY — Guns and gun laws were on open display at the Capitol on Wednesday as state lawmakers gave committee approval to several bills spurred by federal attempts to tighten firearms laws in the wake of the mass shooting Connecticut.
The House Judiciary Committee passed one of the most controversial, HB76, known as the “constitutional carry” bill because it would allow Utahns to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, just as they already are able to openly tote a firearm.
But the committee adjourned without voting on another gun bill attracting a lot of attention, HB114, intended to bar federal gun laws from being enforced in Utah. The bill was amended to no longer make that a felony.
Several in the audience slung guns over their shoulders or wore them holstered on their hips. Utah Highway Patrol troopers stepped in at one point when someone demanded to testify out of turn and had to be escorted to his seat.
At the same time, three other gun bills were passed by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. No weapons were on open display, and there were no confrontations.
Legislative leaders have said they would have preferred to avoid dealing with gun legislation this session, but President Barack Obama's proposed gun control measures have put them on the defensive.
Senate GOP leadership has discussed the highest-profile bills in closed caucus, including HB114, which has a high probability of being found unconstitutional, according to legislative attorneys.
"We are concerned about bills that are clearly unconstitutional or bills that have significant problems that we're going to have to fund defense for," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that doesn't mean the Senate wouldn't consider those bills, but it is a concern.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said support for the Second Amendment is strong and that won't change, no matter what happens to the gun bills.
"I don't think that attitude about the Second Amendment, and that critical right, I don't think you'll see support for that diminish at all," she said.
The sponsor of HB76, Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, said he was attempting to “give gun owners assurance they can do mundane things,” such as put on a raincoat over an openly carried weapon during a storm.
Mathis said the bill would not encourage more people to carry guns, describing it as a “very small step” from legislation allowing guns to be carried in vehicles without a permit that was passed several years ago.
“I’m not trying to encourage gun use. I’m not trying to discourage gun use. I believe, in this country, we have a right to bear arms,” he said. “A law-abiding citizen ought to be able to exercise that right.”
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said the bill would allow Utahns to avoid the background checks and classes now required to obtain a concealed weapons permit.
The other Democrat on the committee, Rep. Brian King of Salt Lake City, said the state denied concealed weapons permits to more than 600 applicants last year because background checks turned up felony and other serious convictions.
“I’m concerned we’re moving too far in our state in the direction of unreasonable and unnecessary access to guns,” King said, calling for more attention to public safety considerations.
Sam Fidler, a coordinator with the National Rifle Association, had his son, Michael, stand up and show off his holstered 9mm handgun. Guns, Fidler told the committee, don't intimidate or threaten.
Instead, he said, a gun "eliminates the monopoly of force from the government and the criminal element." The United States is "one of the greatest nations on Earth becaue the people have a voice, and the firearm gives us that voice," Fidler said.
The committee sent the bill to the full House for a vote, with only King and Arent opposed.
The debate over HB114 was more contentious.
Greene said his bill was more about state sovereignty than guns but "not motivated by an anti-federal government sentiment or by the desire to arrest federal officers." He said he was responding to what he saw as a frenzy of gun control efforts in Washington, D.C.
"We as a state have a duty to make our voice heard," Greene said.
He seemingly reluctantly agreed to the amendment removing language making it a third-degree felony for federal gun laws to be enforced in Utah, saying many people wanted even stronger language.
The Utah Sheriffs' Association had sent a letter to Obama warning they would not enforce federal gun control laws in the state and were willing to "trade our lives" to preserve the Second Amendment. The letter was not mentioned in the hearing.
Both Arent and King raised concerns about how the amendment would affect the constitutional note on the bill, especially since the fiscal note had been reduced from $700,000 to zero.
After trying to postpone a vote on the bill until legislative staff could review the impact of the amendment, King successfully moved to adjourn the committee. The bill will now be heard at the committee's next meeting, set for 8 a.m. Friday.
Mathew Chappell, a nursing aide from Taylorsville, said he had taken time off work and hired a babysitter to attend the hearing and had hoped to speak on the bill.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," Chappell said of the vote being delayed.
Chappell wore his Rugar Mini-30 rifle over his shoulder to the committee meeting to show that gun owners aren't violent. He said he wanted to tell lawmakers "not to give in to the brute force of the federal government."
Two of the bills in the law enforcement committee generated no debate. But Rep. Paul Ray's proposal saying police can't cite people with disorderly conduct for openly carrying a gun absent other behavior drew considerable discussion.
"It seems to be a way to regulate guns when they don't have any other option," the Clearfield Republican said. "All we're saying is is it's not disorderly conduct."
Currently, a person may be charged with disorderly conduct for engaging in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior, regardless of whether a weapon is involved, according to state law.
Lawmakers considered adding the phrase "behavior which would cause a reasonable person to fear for the safety of any person" but ultimately did not before giving HB268 a favorable recommendation.
Resident Linda Newell said the bill is so broad that anything short of brandishing wouldn't be a crime.
"Sometimes merely carrying a gun is threatening and alarming," she said.
Charles Hardy, Gun Owners of Utah public policy director, said, "We believe this does draw a bright line so citizens know what is legal."
Although the law enforcement committee approved the bill, it could undergo changes before it reaches the House floor.
The Utah Shooting Sports Council supports the legislation in its current form, but Ray said he wouldn't be surprised if police departments don't support it. Ray unsuccessfully has spent the past two years trying to come up with a bill that all sides could agree on.
Two other bills in the committee sailed through without opposition.
HB121 would allow residents to take guns to a police department for storage for up to 60 days, no questions asked. Bill sponsor Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, said the idea is to provide a "safe harbor" for weapons when a family might be despondent due to marital problems, mental illness, suicidal thoughts or other issues.
"I think it's innovative. It's out-of-the-box type thinking," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Mass shootings in places such as Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine or Trolley Square were proceeded by foretelling or planning, he said.
"Had they had this opportunity, things might have been different," Aposhian said.
HB211 would allow out-of-state active duty military personnel stationed in Utah to get a concealed weapons permit without first obtaining one in their home states.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, said the bills heard Wednesday impinge on Utahns' right to live safely.
"If Utah is going to be instrumental in reducing gun violence throughout America, then we must have reasoned, productive discussions about gun safety and gun regulation before we pass legislation," she said. "Today's discussion represents a serious setback for reasoned dialogue."
Contributing: Rachel Lowry