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Utah just crossed a big threshold for a small state with just 2.86 million residents: More than a half million people now hold a Utah permit to carry concealed firearms 521,914, to be exact as of Sept. 30, according to new data.
So Utah has issued enough permits for about one of every five residents.
That doesn't mean the state has become the Wild West, though. The lion's share of permits are going to people who live outside Utah. The split is now 62 percent to 38 percent, says Alice Moffat, director of the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification.
Why? Utah's permit is recognized by more states than other permits, so many people want it to allow easier interstate travel with guns.
In other words, with a twist to an old TV series title: Have (Utah) gun (permit), will travel. That may also be a key reason why the number of permits has skyrocketed by a record-setting 126,000 during the past year, and nearly quadrupled in the past five years.
"Utah's permit is a huge value. No other single state's permit will get you 35 states' recognition and reciprocity for $51 for out-of-staters, and $46 for in-staters," says Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
"It's not the most popular permit because we made it so, but because 35 other states made it so," he adds. "Each state can decide individually if they will recognize Utah's permit. All Utah does when it issues the permit, is guarantee it is good in Utah."
Too easy? • Some critics say Utah's permit is too easy to obtain, and that is why it is popular. For example, Steven Gunn, board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, says it requires only "cursory knowledge of firearms laws" and doesn't "require that people actually know how to use the firearm they possess."
Nevada and New Mexico, for example, withdrew their recognition of Utah's permit because it does not require live-fire training.
"But it really had more to do with money," says Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, a concealed-carry-permit instructor. "Their citizens were getting Utah permits" because that was cheaper than buying one from their own state.
He says Utah fixed that problem, and likely prevented other states from also withdrawing recognition. "A couple years ago, we passed a bill saying if you are from a state that recognizes Utah's permit and you want a Utah permit, you have to have a permit from your own home state first."
Violence worries • Oda and Aposhian say the popularity of Utah's permit with out-of-staters is only one of many possible reasons the number of permits has been booming. Others include increasing fear about safety and worry that the government might take away more gun rights.
Both have roots in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14, when 20 children and six adults were gunned down by an emotionally disturbed man.
"Many people had an epiphany. They realized it doesn't matter where you live and how nice a community may be, these multiple-victim shootings as rare and isolated as they may be do happen," Aposhian says. "People started looking at carrying guns in schools and thought maybe a firearm might have helped, and at worst it might not have hurt anything."
Oda says many more teachers have taken his concealed-carry-permit classes this year. Aposhian and others offered free classes for teachers after Sandy Hook and plan to repeat that this month.
Aposhian adds such people want permits for "the same reason people buy fire extinguishers. They aren't expecting a fire, so they will probably never use a fire extinguisher that is in their office, home or school. But if you do need a fire extinguisher, you need it in an extreme hurry."
Aposhian adds that fear caused by Sandy Hook also helped lead to record gun sales. For example, Utah set a record for background checks for gun purchases last December when Sandy Hook occurred with 23,227, a whopping 55 percent higher than the previous monthly record.
Gunn agrees that more people are getting permits and guns out of worry about safety, but he feels they are actually increasing danger in their homes. "It's not because people are likely to shoot one another, but the availability of guns leads to a higher incidence of accidental shootings and, more importantly, a higher incidence of suicides."
Gun-control worry • Sandy Hook also led to renewed calls to ban assault weapons and for increased gun control. Aposhian and Oda say that made many people rush for concealed-carry permits, worrying that they may not be available later or that requirements might be tougher.
"Nationally, there was a huge interest in getting them because of what was happening with the Obama administration, and its push for gun control and bans on assault weapons" after Sandy Hook, Oda says.
Gunn says while such fears exist, he feels they are unfounded. "Our Legislature here, and in most states, are dominated by gun lobbies," so little chance exists for tougher laws. Besides that, Gunn says he has heard of few proposals that would affect concealed-carry permits.
Aposhian also sees one final reason why concealed-carry permits may be more popular: Newer gun designs make them easier to carry and use, and that may be attracting more women.
"In my classes, I'm getting more and more women. Firearms are being made lighter, they are being made in different colors," he says. "People don't have to change how they dress anymore to discretely maintain a firearm."