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LAYTON - Among the things that make Utah a special place are its gun laws. Love 'em or hate 'em, they often make living, working and even dining in the state a visceral experience, harking back to the heady days of Deadwood and Dodge City.

Most Utahns are aware their state issues an easily obtained concealed-weapon permit. By passing a background check and basic course in gun safety, anyone over 21 can qualify to carry an undercover gun.

But in how many places, outside parts of Africa and the Middle East, can you legally stroll down the street with a semi-automatic carbine slung over your shoulder, let alone a handgun on your hip?

"Any citizen over 18 can protect themselves by openly carrying a firearm," says Brian Nelson, an emergency vehicle equipment salesman who lives in Layton. Nelson is the spokesman for the Utah branch of, a national network organization whose motto is "A right unexercised is a right lost."

Last month, Utah began a monthly "lunch group" to talk about gun rights while openly carrying handguns. Twenty-five members met at the Golden Corral in Layton on Saturday.

Joe Smith, a computer programmer from Lehi, joined the group for lunch with his wife, Tiffney, and 9-week-old son Paxton. Why does Smith feel the need to pack a 9mm Hi-Point semi-auto on his hip?

"Right here," he says, nodding toward his wife and son. "They're the reason."

"It seems we are seeing more and more of it." says Ed Phillips, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, about the "open-carry" phenomenon. Phillips has asked the state police academy to address the legalities of open-carry with cadets. It's only reasonable to go on alert when someone encounters an armed person, but it's unclear to many how to respond, Phillips says. "There is a lot of confusion, even among law enforcement officers."

Don't look in state statutes for a concise law covering the ins and outs of packing iron in public. It's not directly addressed.

"It's legal because it's not illegal," says Clark Aposhian, a firearms instructor and lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "Ask five cops about open-carry and you'll get five different answers."

Nelson says many of the questions linger because "People don't exercise their right often at all." He openly carries his sidearm, even though he has a concealed weapon permit, a few times a week. "It's my right to defend myself."

Exposure builds tolerance, Nelson says of regular forays by group members into restaurants and shopping malls. "People have to be exposed to my lifestyle to be tolerant of it."

Still, property rights trump the Second Amendment. If a property owner objects to someone packing a weapon, he can ask them to leave or face trespassing charges.

Nelson, a part-time firearms instructor, and Aposhian don't recommend open-carry unless the citizen takes some firearms training, including weapon "retention."

Having a law-abiding citizen's gun hijacked is a concern of many police officers, says Lt. Douglas Anderson of the Utah Department of Public Safety, head of the state's concealed weapon permit program.

"Police officers are trained to protect their weapon from being taken from them," he says, but even concealed-weapon courses seldom address it.

Beyond training, much of the so-called "open-carry life¬style" comes down to convenience, common sense and good manners.

"It's a complete life change," says Nelson. "The minute you put a firearm on, you need to know the consequences of it and what is proper and not proper to do."

Aposhian, for instance, says he avoids openly carrying in certain places, such as banks and schools, where he might disturb "decorum." "I don't pick my nose in public, either," he says.

Says Nelson: "I don't usually open-carry into a bank. There are some things that don't go together - guns and banks are one. But that's a person's personal preference."

Anderson, Nelson and Aposhian agree on one thing: From a purely self-defense point of view, open carry is a bad idea.

"Tactically speaking, if a bad guy comes into a restaurant and sees your gun, who do you think he's going to shoot first?" Aposhian says.

Anderson agrees and adds that the citizen has sacrificed the advantage of surprise.

But many open-carry advocates argue that when a criminal sees an armed citizen, "It's going to click for them that they should find an easier target," Nelson says.

Speaking as a law officer, Anderson says that all things considered, "I don't know if Utah law enforcement is ready for open carry circumstances."

But if the practice is going to increase, law officers need latitude to check that guns and owners are street legal, without violating search and detention protections, he says.

The state board that oversees concealed firearms instructors in July approved a request to the attorney general for a legal opinion on open-carry. But the request has yet to make it past the Department of Public Safety, says Aposhian, the board's chairman.

"We have to be able to tell instructors what to teach on open-carry," he says. While open-carry advocates are sure of their legal status, "some people are obviously confused."

At a glance

* THE ISSUE: State statutes don't cover the ins and outs of openly carrying a gun. Basically, it's legal because it's not illegal.

* WHAT'S NEXT: A request to the attorney general for a legal opinion on open-carry is pending but has yet to make it past the Department of Public Safety.

So you want to pack heat?

Though somewhat unclear or untested, here are the rules for openly carrying a gun in Utah:

* Don't be a felon.

* Keep the firearm in plain view, unless you have a concealed weapon permit.

* The firearm must be "statutorily unloaded." That means the gun has no cartridge in the chamber or firing position and would take two manual actions to fire. For instance, a semi-auto pistol with a full magazine would have an empty chamber. Then, it must take two actions to fire: 1. Pulling and releasing the slide to chamber a round. 2. Pulling the trigger. (If you hold a concealed carry permit, the open-carry firearm can be loaded and ready to fire.)

* Not even the Second Amendment will let you open-carry in some places, including courthouses, post offices, schools (unless you have a concealed weapon permit) and secure parts of airports.

* Applies to all legal firearms, including rifles and shotguns.

* If the manager of a business or the property owner asks you to leave, you must or face trespassing charges.

* A homeowner or church can ban your gun from their premises.