SALT LAKE CITY — Battle lines are being drawn in the nation's capital over President Obama's calls for new gun control laws. Utah lawmakers will have a gun bill of their own to consider when the legislative session begins Jan. 28.
Members of the Legislature will likely decide whether the state's executive branch should have the authority to ban gun use in some areas during periods of extreme fire danger. Senate Bill 120 would make clear that the state forester could close state-owned or unincorporated county lands to firearms use when conditions in those areas become extremely hazardous.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, comes at the request of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The division's Jason Curry told KSL the idea is not to implement a de-facto ban on shooting across the entire state, as sometimes happens with campfires.
"I don't think that anyone from our administration or from DNR really wants to restrict it more than is necessary, just to maintain public safety," Curry said.
The problem came into focus during the summer of 2012, when a mixture of target shooting mishaps and extreme conditions led to numerous wildfire starts. The most visible of those was the Dump Fire. State investigators believe target shooters inadvertently started it with an exploding target on June 21. Flames raced away from the point of origin near a landfill in Saratoga Springs, eventually covering 5,507 acres.
"We've got folks out there shooting full steel core and steel jacketed ammunition at propane bottles and plates of steel and into the rocks."
In October, Utah County prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges against two men for their alleged role in starting the Dump Fire. Charging documents accuse Kenneth Nielsen of Washington, Utah, and Jeffery Conant of Woodinville, Wash., of reckless burning and use of a prohibited target. The cases against both men are pending.
"Seventy-four percent of all the fires caused west of Utah Lake were shooting-related," Curry said. Another factor is the choice of ammunition and target types. Fire investigators believe sparks from a ricochet could be hot enough to start dry grasses burning, but exploding targets are much more likely to ignite those fuels.
"We've got folks out there shooting full steel core and steel jacketed ammunition at propane bottles and plates of steel and into the rocks," he said.
Curry said the unlawful use of tracer rounds is to blame for three fires in the last five weeks across public lands in southern Utah.
"All it really does is to put into code what has traditionally been an involvement of the executive branch, but it's never been clarified."
Federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service regulate gun use on federal lands. The state Legislature also grants Utah cities the ability to enact restrictions on gun use within their boundaries, but ambiguity in the current law left Gov. Gary Herbert unsure if his office could do the same on state and unincorporated lands last summer.
Sen. Dayton believes SB120 would clarify the executive branch's authority - an authority that has long existed but not been understood.
"All it really does is to put into code what has traditionally been an involvement of the executive branch, but it's never been clarified if that's their duty," Dayton said.
As for the timing of the bill, she admits it could be better. Still, Dayton does not expect significant opposition from fellow lawmakers.
"It's been accepted without much controversy because people understand the urgency to have some options, especially during fire season to put some control on where shooting will take place," she said.