This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A state legislator is setting up free concealed weapon classes for policy-makers and their families this summer, while at the same time formulating a proposal to make it easier for Utahns to secretly carry a firearm.
Clearfield Republican Rep. Curtis Oda says the sessions are aimed at educating lawmakers and debunking gun-control advocates' criticism of Utah's gun laws.
The first two students were Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. Since then, 12 legislators and eight other elected officials have taken the free gun-handling classes. And Oda has another 25 legislators interested, with the next class scheduled for July.
Oda insists the classes are not an effort to push any particular piece of legislation. Still, he confirms he is working on a bill that would "tweak" Utah's law, which he calls "too restrictive."
The lawmaker's efforts - and state leaders' willingness to accept a free class worth $75 and, in some cases, a lunch paid for by the National Rifle Association - raise the eyebrows of gun-control advocates.
Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah board member Maura Carabello calls Oda's classes "exposure lobbying" that gets around Utah's lobbyist disclosure laws but still persuades lawmakers to be sympathetic to his cause.
"I object to this being framed as merely educational, with no larger political intent," Carabello said. "This is not government responding to the public. This is a special interest trying to affect lawmakers."
Oda first approached the governor last summer when both were running for office. Huntsman and Herbert accepted free training from two of the state's top concealed carry experts - Clark Aposhian, who is the chairman of the state's concealed carry review board, and Mitch Vilos, an attorney and gun dealer who has written a book on Utah's firearm laws.
Last June, the future governor and lieutenant governor took the three-hour training and received their permits.
A year later, Huntsman still doesn't carry a gun. The only firearm he owns is a .22-caliber rifle he got as a teenager. The governor says he went to the class mostly to learn about Utah's law.
"I was interested in seeing what someone off the street has to go through in order to qualify," he said. "I thought it was rigorous.
"I came out of it understanding how to carry and how to be responsible," Huntsman added. "I felt I could carry a weapon without hurting someone, but choose not to."
Herbert declined to say whether he is packing. He notes the governor has armed guards with him and stationed outside the governor's mansion 24 hours a day, while Herbert does not. Herbert and his assistant were assaulted last summer on the campaign trail in Tooele.
"I'm not much of a firearms guy," Herbert said. "But I'd just as soon not have the public know whether I carry a gun or not."
While Huntsman took the class in the middle of a heated fight for the Republican nomination, gun rights advocates do not question his motives for taking the class.
Aposhian, who now manages Totally Awesome Guns and Range in Kearns, isn't surprised Huntsman doesn't pack.
"The governor is someone who has the Department of Public Safety protecting him around the clock. If I had someone like that protecting my family I probably won't carry a gun," he said.
And if Huntsman and Herbert were pandering to conservative voters, Gun Owners of Utah Director Charles Hardy says that's OK. At least they were getting an education. Hardy says Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's duck hunt last fall was a much more blatant attempt to garner votes.
"I'm glad that they have firsthand knowledge of what law-abiding citizens go through in order to obtain a permit," Hardy said. "But the decision about whether to actually carry a gun is intensely personal. The decision ought to be respected one way or the other."
State legislators have taken advantage of the free classes, too. During the legislative session, Oda quietly placed a flier on the desks of senators and representatives offering to arrange a free course.
On March 19 and 26, 37 lawmakers and their family members went to the state gun range at Camp Williams to attend a class taught by Aposhian and Vilos. The class lasted four or five hours, and like the governor's session, included more detail about the law than the public normally hears, including a discussion on the differences between Utah's law and the laws of other states.
The NRA provided lunch. Afterward, legislators and their family members practiced at the range, using bullets donated by Totally Awesome Guns and Range. Aposhian and Vilos normally charge $75 for concealed weapons training, but waived their fee, as they did for Huntsman and Herbert. Public officials who wanted a permit had to pay the standard $59 fee.
Aposhian and Vilos are not registered lobbyists with the State Elections Office, but Aposhian acknowledges he lobbies legislators to protect gun rights.
Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, attended one of the sessions and left with his concealed carry permit, though he has no plans to put it to use. Kiser says he never shot a gun before aiming a 9 mm handgun at targets in March. Kiser figures he walked away with some good tips on self-defense and he plans to pretend he has a gun if ever assaulted.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and his wife considered the class a refresher course. They already have permits. Stephenson never carries, while his wife conceals a gun on some of her horseback rides.
Oda says his purpose in arranging the free classes is to increase the level of understanding - and support - for concealed carry permits in Utah's Capitol.
"If someone wants to become informed about it, learn both sides and then criticize, great," he said. "Speak from education, not emotional rhetoric. Emotion is dangerous."
But Carabello says the free classes don't pass the proverbial "smell test." Oda's classes, she says, are a subtle form of lobbying for looser laws - something Utah doesn't need.