SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill aimed at eliminating the need for a person over age 21 -- who wants to carry a concealed weapon -- to have a concealed weapons permit has cleared its first hurdle at the state Legislature.

On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make Utah a constitutional carry state. Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, chief sponsor of the legislation, said that the bill would bring clarity to the patchwork of firearm possession laws in Utah.

"In my world we use horses still. We move cattle. We go fishing and it is quite common to carry a gun on a saddle. If I don't have a concealed weapons permit, I have to have the gun unloaded to carry it with me. If it starts to rain or get cold and if I put a jacket on, I'm breaking the law," Mathis said.

Mathis explained that under current state law a law-abiding citizen can carry a gun openly as long as the gun is not loaded. His bill would allow the person to conceal that weapon without having to apply for a permit before doing so. 

"Personally, I am far more comfortable if the gun is covered," he stated.

Mathis stated he did not believe his bill would put more guns in society and that the bill would align Utah with other constitutional carry states like Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont. He also stated private property owners could block a person from bringing a gun onto their property.

His bill received a mixed reaction from the Democrats on the committee. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, worried about public safety as the bill eliminates the vetting process that occurs when a person applies for a permit. King stated reasonable filters should remain in place to make sure firearms do not fall into the hands of the wrong individuals.

"There is an incremental increase of the deadly force that is available to an individual under this bill," King said.

People packed the large committee room in the basement of the House building on Capitol Hill for the hearing. The committee chair, Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, had a sign-up sheet passed around the room for those who wished to speak about the bill.

The sign-up sheet apparently did not make it to those who opposed the bill; McIff announced that no one from the public signed up to speak against the bill, which brought a loud applause from the crowd before being reminded that public demonstrations are not allowed in committee hearings. Following the applause those who opposed the bill raised their hands to let McIff know they wanted to speak out against the bill.

Those in favor of the bill took the opportunity to show their pride in their firearms while speaking. One member from the public had his 18-year-old son stand up in the audience displaying a handgun in a holster on the son's hip. The man stated the legislation would allow Utahns to protect themselves from rape, robbery or an overbearing government.

Steve Gunn with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah spoke out against the bill with the same concerns as King. Gunn noted that the permit process prevented more than 600 people who did not clear a background check from obtaining a firearm. He argued that the system is working to make Utah safer.

Connor Boyack of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute pointed out that criminals and potential criminals generally do not check to see if they are in compliance with the law when they obtain a gun, furthering the argument for supporters of the bill that the legislation was about allowing law-abiding people to do a legal action.

One tense moment in the meeting took place after the committee closed off public comment to the bill. A man wearing a purple T-shirt rose from the audience while the committee debated motions on the bill and took a seat at the table before the committee, saying he wanted to exercise his First Amendment right.

McIff ruled the man was out of order to which the man responded that McIff would have to arrest him if he didn't want him to speak. Highway Patrol officers surrounded the man and escorted him back to his seat where he sat quietly for the remainder of the meeting.

The committee approved of the legislation on a vote of 7-2 with King and Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, voting against it. Mathis stated that he was not 100 percent comfortable with the legislation but said after studying it out for many months he felt it was the right thing to do.

While the committee moved forward Mathis's legislation it did hold off on taking a final vote on Pleasant Grove Republican Rep. Brian Greene's bill that would empower state officers to arrest federal officials who enforce federal gun laws in Utah. Greene's bill was amended by the committee early in its discussion to remove the third-degree felony provision that a federal officer could be charged with for trying to enforce federal law.

Following the amendment King and Arent argued that the committee should hold the bill to allow for legislative attorneys to examine the bill to see if the change would eliminate some of the constitutionality problems with the proposal. Time also had run out on the meeting and lawmakers wanted to move on to their next committee hearing. A motion to hold the bill failed but King's motion to adjourn passed, forcing Greene's bill to be moved to Friday for further consideration.

Greene said he was disappointed with the committee for adjourning before allowing the public to speak on his bill. He stated that Democrats were dragging their feet in asking questions during Mathis's bill so time would run out before the committee could hear his proposal. Greene said his bill will pass out of the committee on Friday.

Greene's and Mathis's bills were just two of six that were considered by the Legislature during the so-called Gun Day. The House Law Enforcement committee gave its approval to three bills that dealt with gun legislation:

• HB 121, which would allow people, if they deem there is an immediate threat, to turn over to law enforcement a firearm of an individual with whom they are living;

• HB 211, which would waive the fee a person must pay when obtaining a concealed weapons permit for active duty military personnel and their spouses; and

• HB 268, which states a person may not be charged with disorderly conduct for simply possessing a firearm in public.

The committee was supposed to hear a bill dealing with the amount of time law enforcement has to return a confiscated weapon to an individual. Time ran out before the bill could be heard. Its hearing will be rescheduled for a later date.

-- Billy Hesterman covers the Utah State Legislature and local politics for the Daily Herald. You can follow him on Twitter at: @billyhesterman
Read more from Billy Hesterman here.
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