Utah law tests limits of gun culture in West
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State legislators recently crafted a law that would make it harder for Utahns to get initiative measures on the ballot here. It's aimed specifically at those pushing for a referendum on the state's concealed-weapons law.Skip to next paragraph
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The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates Utah as one of the worst states "at protecting its children from gun violence."
"Utah does not hold adults responsible for leaving loaded guns around children, does not require child-safety locks to be sold with guns, and does not have any handgun-safety standards," states the gun-safety organization. "Utah also forces police to let people carry hidden handguns in public, even into schools, and does not require background checks at gun shows."
The state's current law on concealed weapons went into effect in 1996. In essence, officials may not deny an application for a concealed weapons permit except for good cause - a felony conviction, for example. A short safety course is required, but the applicant does not need to demonstrate any proficiency with a gun.
Since then, the number of people permitted to carry concealed weapons in Utah has risen from about 15,000 to nearly 57,000. Of those, about 1,000 have lost their license - in many cases for violent crime, including sexual assault and murder. Still, the total number continues to go up by about 1,000 a month.
What is it about the politics and culture of Utah that allows guns in schools?
Part of it is the Western attitude toward firearms - the right to keep and bear arms with as little government interference as possible. It also may have to do with Utah's history of violence, including the murder of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Mountain Meadows massacre of non-Mormon emigrants from Arkansas on the way to California in 1857. Utah is one of the few states where those convicted of capital crimes can be executed by firing squad.
Ever since emigrants from back East headed out the Oregon and Santa Fe trails 150 years ago, people in the rural West - particularly in the intermountain states - have thought of guns as a natural part of life and society.
Hunting, target shooting, and owning guns for protection are commonplace.
"Roughly 55 percent of Utahns have a gun in the house, including me," says Marla Kennedy, executive director of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.
Yet, she says, "We're not the wild West anymore....There's just places where guns ought not to be."
Utah's influence in such matters may manifest itself back in Washington.
Earlier this month, US Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah introduced legislation that would revoke Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns, end registration requirements for ammunition and other firearms, and remove bans on the possession or carrying of weapons at homes and workplaces.
Senator Hatch says making it easier for law-abiding citizens to have guns in the nation's capital would help reduce the city's high crime rate. He calls his bill the "D.C. Personal Protection Act."
Noting that the 17 Senate cosponsors of Hatch's bill received more than $225,000 in contributions from the gun lobby during the 2002 campaign, critics call it something else.
"It's another example of the gun lobby using senators as puppets to fulfill their legislative priorities," says Chris McGrath, executive director of Handgun-Free America, an organization dedicated to banning handguns nationwide.