SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah bill that would allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit prompted debate Friday among some who believe it will promote individuals' safety and others who fear it will prove deadly amid the mental health crisis.
"This is not just a left issue or right issue," bill sponsor Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said. "This is good data that drives good policy. ... The right to carry or protect yourself is a constitutional right."
He said studies in some of the 16 states that allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit have shown no increase in crime. Law-abiding citizens will still seek out gun training on their own should the bill pass, according to Brooks.
"We need to get back to trusting law-abiding citizens because that's what they do. They obey the law," Brooks said during a House Judiciary Standing Committee meeting.
HB60's language mirrors legislation Brooks filed in the final days of the 2020 session, which would remove the state's requirement for law-abiding Utahns over the age of 21 to have a permit to legally carry a concealed firearm.
Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, said he's concerned that the bill could cause danger to people of color who choose to carry a concealed gun.
"I've seen where individuals are pulled over or possibly stereotyped because they have a gun," Wheatley said, adding that police officers might assume that some are "using it for the wrong reasons," causing the gun owner to suffer consequences.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he believes the number of guns in people's possessions will likely rise if requirements decrease, leading to more accidental discharges and creating more risk for those going through mental health crises.
King said he'd feel more comfortable with the bill if the state was increasing the scope of background checks for purchasing firearms.
Brooks noted that in Utah, someone can already carry a gun openly without a permit.
"We're just changing the fact that you can put your coat over it. That's the difference," he said.
The concealed carry permit program would remain available in Utah should the bill pass, Brooks noted, and it will still carry a benefit for those who choose to get it. The permit will be required when people cross into other states, he said.
Connor Boyack, president of nonprofit advocacy group Libertas Institute, spoke in support of the bill despite concerns he's heard that it would cause gun holders to receive less weapons training.
Boyack said his father and many of his friends work as concealed carry permit instructors.
"Basically the training that's involved is a review of the law, and while that's important, there is no firearm handling," Boyack explained.
"Our organization does feel that the permit condition is constitutionally problematic," he said, adding that the group sees the bill as a way of protecting constitutional rights.
Mark Brinton, with the Utah Medical Association, said his group opposes the bill because there are "very important safety aspects" in concealed carry permit training that would no longer be required if the bill passes.
Research also says firearms are a leading cause of pediatric deaths, Brinton noted.
Noel Gardner, a psychologist at University of Utah Health, said now is "the wrong time to become more casual about guns."
Studies on states that passed similar bills took place before the pandemic, Gardner said.
"This is the time we have to be more serious about guns. Not to take them away — I have no interest in that — but to be more serious about careful monitoring, of understanding how to use them," Gardner said.
"There are lot of people who have been very casual about guns, and because suicide is such a huge issue right now ... we're seeing a lot of people lose their jobs, lose their insurance, and the suicide risk has gone way up. ... And we need more intervention about careful management and suicide avoidance at every stage of engaging with guns," he said.
Eric Martineau, a concealed carry instructor in Logan, said he and his fellow instructors are seeing more college students seeking to carry guns to help prevent them from becoming victims of crime.
"Over the last year, I've had a number of students from Utah State University that have been doing their own thing and came to our business because they had stalkers, and currently for them to get a permit when they're being stalked or harassed by people, they're afraid of sexual assault, I think is unconscionable," Martineau said.
He said he hopes the bill will pass to enable people to defend themselves without having "to be taxed for it."
The 16 states that allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota (residents only) and Wyoming (residents only). Four others allow permitless concealed carry with certain limitations: Illinois, Montana, New Mexico and Washington.
Utah law currently allows people who are legally able to possess a firearm to openly carry their guns in public. A permit is only required for carrying a concealed firearm.
Brooks said he believes that having more people carry concealed guns won't increase suicides or child deaths.
The bill received support from the committee with an 8-4 vote along party lines. It will now move to the full House for a vote.
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Help is also available through the SafeUT app.
Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text "HOME" to 741-741
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
- University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300
- NAMI Utah: namiut.org
- County Crisis Lines: https://www.namiut.org/families-caregivers/suicide-prevention
- Utah Chapter-American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsputah.com
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org