SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a controversial bill that would allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit.
"This law simply makes it legal to cover up the gun that is currently legal to carry openly," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, the Senate sponsor of HB76. "This is something that strengthens the right to carry a firearm."
The Senate voted 19-6 in favor of the measure in a preliminary vote. It would need to pass once more before going to the governor for consideration.
Gov. Gary Herbert reiterated Tuesday that he is satisfied with Utah's gun laws and doesn't want them to change.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it comes to mind, and I don't think, at least in Utah, it's broken," he said. The governor hasn't said whether he would veto the bill.
The so-called "constitutional carry" law would allow someone to pack a gun under a coat or other attire without a state-issued concealed weapons permit. Permits are obtained by paying a fee, taking a class and passing a background check.
The House amended the original bill to require that weapons concealed without a permit be unloaded, which under Utah law means they do not have a round in the chamber.
House sponsor Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, said he proposed the bill initially because a hunter was harassed by authorities for putting on a raincoat while carrying a gun.
Herbert said he has spoken with Mathis and understands what led to the bill. But, "I'm not one that believes we ought to pass laws and make policy based on some anecdotal story," he said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was the only Republican to vote against the measure. He said gun owners should get as much training as they can. If the right to own a gun were absolute, prison inmates should be able to carry weapons, Hillyard said.
"I'm content with our current law," he said. "I don't think that's intruding in our lives. I call that common sense."
A duck hunter, skeet shooter and concealed weapons permit holder, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she underwent training to learn how to handle guns.
"When you have a driver's license, you can do harm if you're not skilled at that," Mayne said.
Guns, she said, are deadly. "And if you pick up something that's deadly, you better be skilled at it or leave it alone."
Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said women feel differently about guns than men, and the women in her district want to see gun laws remain the same.
"I have a baseball bat by my bed, not a gun," she said. "I think that's more efficient, frankly."
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said his largely rural district favors gun rights.
"This is an incremental step forward," he said of the bill, adding that it's "well-meaning."
Christensen says many regulated actions are not constitutional rights, but gun ownership is. When someone picks up a weapon, that person has a responsibility to act appropriately with it, he said.
"People are afraid of firearms," Christensen said. "They don't understand them."
The House earlier passed HB76 by vote of 51-18.
"We are supporters in the House of the people's right to keep and bear arms, and that's what you saw reflected in the passage of that bill in the House," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "We believe at least some changes need to be made. … If we didn't believe as a House that it enhanced public safety, we probably wouldn't have passed it."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche