Gun Control Advocates Say Lax Utah Permit Rules Lurk Within Senate Bill

Six cops were shot Wednesday night in Utah, a state notorious for its easy concealed-weapons-permit rules. Josh Dzieza on how that lax system could become the national standard.

01.06.12 9:45 AM ET

Utah police encountered a deadly barrage of gunfire when trying to serve a warrant at a suspect’s house last night. One officer, a seven-year veteran of the force, was killed and five others were wounded before the lone suspect was shot and arrested. The shootout continues a deadly trend from last year, when 71 officers were shot to death, a 20 percent increase over the year before.

The past year was likely a record one for gun sales as well. The FBI reported (PDF) that the number of gun-related background checks skyrocketed in 2011, to nearly 16.5 million, a 15 percent increase over 2010 and the highest number since 1998. The checks don’t perfectly correlate with gun sales, says FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer. They may misrepresent the number of guns sold, because people might not pass the checks, and they fail to capture sales by private dealers at gun shows and online. They certainly overstate the number of sales in Kentucky, the top-ranking state, because officials there run monthly checks on people who hold concealed-weapons permits.

Something similar is likely inflating the number for Utah, which has started rechecking concealed-weapons permits on a quarterly basis and now ranks third in the country for the number of checks performed. But the high number that results from the recounts points to a unique fact of Utah’s gun-control laws: the state hands out a tremendous number of concealed-weapons permits, many to people who never set foot in Utah.

Perhaps unsurprising for a state that recently nominated a state gun (the Browning model 1911) and voted to repeal the gun-free zone around schools, Utah’s lax permitting earns it a zero out of 100 points from the Brady Campaign, the lowest in the country. The state’s concealed-weapons laws earn it special ire from gun-control advocates.

Gun owners from out of state can apply remotely for a Utah permit. The only requirements are some personal information and certification from a course in basic firearm safety. But the course is, according to Gary Sackett of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, “only an academic certificate.” It requires no proficiency in firearms and, according to the many instructors around the country who advertise the class, takes about four hours to complete. “It’s absolutely outrageous,” says Sackett. “It’s like getting a driving license without passing a driving test.”

The other selling point is that it’s recognized in more than 30 states, making it the closest thing to a national concealed-weapons permit available. Out of a total 347,262 active permits, 200,525 belong to nonresidents as of the end of last year, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety. “Utah has become infamous for being a factory for concealed-weapons permits,” says Dennis Henigan, acting president of the Brady Campaign.

Gun-control advocates worry that Utah’s lax rules could soon become the national standard, if the national reciprocity bill working its way through Congress becomes law. The legislation, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, would mandate that any state that issues permits for concealed weapons—every state but Illinois—would have to recognize the validity of permits from every other state. Proponents argue that it would allow gun owners to travel across state lines without worrying about running afoul of another state’s stricter law, like the woman who got arrested after trying to check her gun at the World Trade Center site. But opponents say it would nationalize the weakest state gun laws, and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) both wrote President Obama urging him to issue a veto threat. Passing the bill “would jeopardize public safety and would be an insult to states like New Jersey and New York that purposefully have strong gun-ownership laws,” they wrote.

The bill cleared the House in November and is pending in the Senate. There’s been no statement from the White House, which, other than calling for improvements to the background-check system after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a year ago, has been almost completely silent on the issue. The concealed-carry bill is the only gun legislation to move in Congress since Giffords’s shooting.