The question once asked about a certain former president of the United States was, Ronald Reagan: Political genius or amiable dunce?
The same question is now fairly put about Utah's political leadership in general, including the Legislature, the governor, and some of the gun-loving lobbyists who usually get along with them so well. (Even though the term "dunce" may be a bit strong.)
Consider, a year ago, that Utah's concealed-carry permit law was a national joke. All you had to do to get one was to pass a background check and attend a class that included information about the workings and the legal, and illegal, uses of firearms. The permits are easy enough and cheap enough ($46 for Utah residents) to get that there are now more than 400,000 of them out there. In a state with a total population of less than 2.9 million.
Not only that, Utah permit-carriers didn't even have to set foot in Utah. Because the Utah version is so easy to get, costs only $51 for out-of-staters and is formally or informally recognized in 35 other states, some 70 percent of Utah's concealed carry permits are held by non-Utahns.
Because there was no requirement that concealed-carry permit holders ever demonstrate that they could load, unload, holster, draw and fire a weapon with anything like the skill and accuracy required to shoot anything other than their own foot, or children, most folks saw little difference between the permit requirement and the streets of 19th century Tombstone.
Until, that is, the Legislature passed a bill, HB76, that would basically remove the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Then, practically overnight, Utah's old concealed-carry regime was everybody's new best friend.
The admiration of the status quo was led by Gov. Gary Herbert, who dropped a lot of hints through the legislative session that he didn't see the need for such a significant change in the law and, after it passed both houses of the Legislature with veto-proof majorities, he vetoed it.
Herbert noted, quite reasonably, that the burden of obtaining a permit was hardly so onerous as to amount to an infringement on the right to bear arms. But, at the same time, the process screened out would-be permit-holders who were convicted felons or who had been adjudicated as a mentally ill danger to themselves and others. A reasonable balance, in other words, of private rights with the public good.
Now, not only is the Utah concealed-carry permit the most popular piece of paper in town, but Herbert, often described as a nice fellow who doesn't pull that much weight, comes across as the smartest guy in the room. Because Herbert vetoed only one bill out of 501 passed, the chances that lawmakers will trouble themselves to hold a special session to override the governor are reduced. So he wins, and a tepid concealed-carry law remains on the books.
Such groups as Utah Parents Against Gun Violence and the Gun Violence Prevention Center hailed the veto and, in the process, made some of the same arguments that Herbert did about the usefulness of the permit process.
This despite the fact that any chance, slim though it was, that the Legislature might consider making the permit process more burdensome e.i., reasonable by adding such requirements as at least an hour on a firing range, has been avoided for a long time to come.
The only question that remains is, was this all an elaborate plot to make the state's concealed-carry status quo seem like something rational people might support? Or did it all just sort of happen that way?
The world may never know.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is still trying to figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Enlighten him at email@example.com or via Twitter, @debatestate.