Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, reveals one of his weapons at the Utah State Capitol building.

It’s not a privilege, it’s your right, guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That’s the pro-gun argument. 

But Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, bases his support of gun rights on an even higher power. “The Constitution may be right or wrong, but we have a God-given right to defend ourselves,” he says. 

That conviction has led him to fight any anti-gun legislation introduced at the Utah Legislature. It’s partly because of his efforts that Utah is a “shall issue,” not a “may issue,” state when it comes to concealed carry permits. That means you don’t need a reason to get a permit; it’s your right. 

“I decided no one really understood firearms issues,” says Oda. A dapper, silver-haired Japanese-American, Oda keeps a semi-automatic handgun under his suit jacket, in a shoulder holster. In his view, either people were comfortable with guns or they had a knee-jerk “eek-a-gun” attitude. The gap, he says, was because of a lack of knowledge about guns.

So, over the last 10 years, Oda and his friend, gun lobbyist Clark Aposhian, have offered legislators and members of the news media free concealed carry training. (The legislature voted to keep the names of permit holders from the public.) The result of their education efforts? “We don’t have to fight as many ‘bad’ bills  anymore,” says Aposhian.

The legal upshot? In Utah, there is no limit on bulk purchases of handguns. Yes, you can buy all the handguns you want. At one time. The state does not require owners to report lost or stolen guns. The state does not require training or fingerprinting prior to purchase and does not ban large-capacity magazines. In 2003, Utah amended its concealed carry laws to make it clear that, yes, permit holders may bring their guns into public schools. By some estimates, Utah is the second most armed state in the country with 46,898 background checks per 100,000 residents.

Utah is part of a larger trend. It’s estimated that the number of concealed carry permit holders in this country is now between 4 million and 7 million. Gary Sackett, one of the founders of Utahns Against Gun Violence, says this is due less to education than concentrated efforts by the NRA. “I grew up in Montana. I grew up hunting,” Sackett says. “And I’ll defend to the death your right to own a long gun. But that’s not what we’re talking about now.” 

Last October, an Associated Press analysis showed that gun sales are booming, gun company stock prices are up and that the number of federally licensed retail gun dealers has increased. And that, says Sackett, is because of the NRA.

According to an ABC News report, “The lobbying organization has had more cash on hand during the Obama years than it has since 2004, finishing 2010 with more than $24 million, according to the most recent figures available.” In 2011, the NRA and other gun-rights groups spent $14 million on campaigns and lobbying, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. 

Originally, the NRA, founded by Civil War generals appalled by the poor marksmanship of their troops, set up marksmanship training camps and taught the proper handling of guns. In 1934, it supported the National Firearms Act, the first major federal gun-control legislation.

Now the NRA argues for gun ownership with no training required. (When I took my concealed weapons permit class last fall, I was fingerprinted, photographed and given a three-hour lecture on gun rights. I didn’t even touch a gun.) 

“We have the most valued [concealed carry] permit in the nation,” says Aposhian. In June 2012, 380,036 Americans had Utah concealed carry permits. The state issues permits to residents and non-residents, and as of October, 75,867 permits had been issued in 2012. Seventy-five percent of those were issued by mail to people living out of Utah, many of whom have never set foot in the state. 

Part of the reason our permit is so popular is quid pro quo: Utah recognizes every other state’s concealed carry permits. But Utah’s permit is easy for other states to accept because, Aposhian says, “As of 2002, we do a federal background check on permit holders every 24 hours. Your record has to be clear to get the permit in the first place. After that, all changes are recent, so our computer cross-checks names of crimes committed with the list of permit holders.” And because gun ownership is “a right, not a privilege,” the state scrupulously avoids making money on  issuing permits. The fee for residents is $46, the out-of-state fee is $51, and Utah is the only state that has lowered its fees. You can renew your permit online for $15. Utah permits cover 35 states, or as Aposhian likes to put it, “80 percent  of the landmass of the United States.” 

We’re well armed, alarmingly so to gun-control advocates, who often aren’t even familiar with the guns they want to ban. But gun-rights supporters ask, “If owning guns is so bad, and Utahns own so many, where’s the bloodbath?”

Statistics only tell the part the storyteller wants you to know.

In 2009, for the first time, there were more gun-related deaths than car-related deaths in Utah. But gun deaths were not on the rise. Instead, fatalities in car accidents were declining. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 percent of the 2009 Utah firearm deaths were suicides. In 2010, there were 22 firearms murders in Utah. The Institute for Economics and Peace has named Utah one of the five most peaceful states in the nation, a ranking based partly on gun ownership and homicide rates.

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