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In the 11 years since its passage, Utah's concealed-weapon law has become the closest thing to a national concealed-carry permit, with six of every 10 permits this year going to out-of-state residents.

A tidal wave of nonresident applicants since January has state Bureau of Criminal Identification officials overwhelmed and concerned that Utah taxpayers are subsidizing nonresidents' gun permits. Worse, they say the huge numbers of out-of-state applicants are robbing resources from other important public safety duties - particularly doing criminal background checks on school employees.

"Utah's is the de facto national concealed-carry permit," says Ed McConkie, chief of BCI, which administers the state's concealed-weapons licensing. Of more than 62,000 permits issued from 1995 to 2005, 19,000 have gone to nonresidents.

Applying for Utah's permit requires a gun-safety class, fingerprinting, a criminal background check and $59. An applicant does not have to be a Utah resident - or even have set foot in the state - to get a concealed-gun permit. Utah has licensed instructors in 42 other states and Canada to remotely train applicants for its permit.

Out-of-state applicants, for the most part, are not seeking to carry concealed weapons in Utah. Instead, they want to carry in the more than 30 states that recognize Utah's permit. Utah has the highest level of acceptance in the nation. Add that to the permit's five-year duration, low fee, ease of renewal and modest level of training, and it's no wonder gun rights activists call Utah's "the most valuable permit in the nation."

"With a Utah permit, a nonresident can carry in many other states because those states look at Utah's permit system and say, 'It's a good program. We will accept that,' " says Clark Aposhian, a gun rights lobbyist and chairman of the Utah Concealed Weapon Review Board.

Apparently, word of Utah's bargain concealed-gun permit has spread. The number of out-of-state permits has been increasing rapidly every year - but BCI has not seen anything like this year's onslaught.

The bureau projects the number of concealed weapon applicants will hit 16,138 by the end of 2006, breaking 2005's record of 10,767. But even more shocking to the bureau, fully 58 percent of 2006 applicants do not live in Utah.

Many nonresident applicants apply for Utah permits because their own state's regulations are more stringent or the fees are higher. Then, Utah's reciprocity allows them to carry a concealed handgun on their own turf, says McConkie. "It's better to have a Utah concealed-carry permit in Florida than a Florida permit."

Art Gordon, a gun dealer in St. Louis who has a Utah training licence, says half the people he trains for concealed-carry permits are applying to faraway Utah. Charging $80 each, Gordon has prepared about 200 applicants for Utah's permit. Though Utah only requires "familiarity" with guns - it's possible to get a Utah permit without firing a weapon - Gordon requires his students to prove handgun competence on a shooting range.

"Missouri doesn't have reciprocity with as many states as Utah; that's the primary reason its permit is so popular," Gordon says. "My students come from Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio to get Utah permits."

Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, one of the Legislature's leading gun-rights advocates, is not concerned by the growing number of Utah permits going to nonresidents who are trained out of state.

"As long as they are teaching the proper things, the more people who have concealed weapons, the better," Oda says. "Utah's permit is the most valuable in the country. We are the standard now and more and more states want to have reciprocity with us."

Steve Gunn, a Salt Lake lawyer who is on the board of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, says he is not surprised about the popularity of Utah's permit considering how easy it is to get one.

"It's a shame that we make these permits available so easily and that we don't have more stringent requirements to get them," Gunn says. "The ease with which one can obtain a permit is not in the best interest of the public."

Though BCI will collect more than $500,000 in fees this year, the program will cost $610,000 to administer, according to bureau figures. Yet, the Legislature only appropriates $88,000 to run the program. "That pays for about one employee," says McConkie.

"The money [from fees] disappears into that big blue ocean of the state budget," says the Department of Public Safety's Col. Claron Brenchley, who oversees the concealed-carry program. The department subsidizes the program through other parts of its budget.

At the same time, the Legislature requires BCI to process the applications within 60 days. This month, for the first time, the six BCI workers who handle the concealed-carry background checks and paperwork have fallen behind. "We are technically in violation of the statute," says Brenchley.

McConkie emphasizes the majority of the backlog of 2,600 applications are from nonresidents. "Out-of-state applicants are driving this dramatic increase in applications. It is skyrocketing."

To keep up, Brenchley says the bureau has been tapping resources in other BCI programs, including employees and computers that should be screening teachers and other workers in sensitive public jobs.

"This has become a public safety issue," Brenchley says of the lagging educator checks. "What is more important, a concealed-carry permit or checking the background of a teacher?"

Oda, Aposhian and others in the gun lobby say the solution is to funnel the state's share of the permit fees directly to BCI to cover the costs of the program. By their math, the state of Utah is making a profit on issuing the permits.

"There is no way BCI can continue to do this," Aposhian says. "They flat-out don't have the manpower to stay in compliance."

Aposhian, chairman of Utah Shooting Sports Council, the local National Rifle Association affiliate, says he would be willing to raise out-of-state permit fees - if the money went to BCI. "I don't want Utahns spending a dime to subsidize out-of-state permits."

But Oda maintains the solution is for the Legislature to mandate all concealed-weapon fees to flow directly to BCI.

"The numbers are there. They have plenty of money to administer the concealed-weapon regulation," he says. "Yet they are only allocated back $88,000, and have to rob Peter to pay Paul to run the program."

McConkie fears any solution that involves increasing the price of permits or limiting issue to nonresidents could trigger a political battle between national gun-rights and gun-control groups. "If Utah is seen as the last bastion of gun permits - it may become a national rallying point."