SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is a gun-friendly state, and Utah County might be the gun-friendliest county in the Beehive State. Consider that in the fourth quarter of 2013, the Utah Department of Public Safety (UDPS) received 7,020 requests to purchase or redeem firearms in Utah County. That compared with 7,955 requests in Salt Lake County, which has roughly double the population.
As for the state, the number of valid concealed-carry firearm permits in Utah is about the same as in Texas, which is widely viewed as a gun-loving, gun-supporting state. But Texas has nearly 10 times the population of Utah.
The UDPS reported that as of Dec. 31, 2013, there were 535,857 valid holders of Utah concealed carry permits. About 194,000 of those were Utah residents and the remainder live in other states but possess a Utah permit. That compares to 584,850 valid permits in pro-gun Texas.
Out-of-state residents seek Utah concealed carry permits because 35 other states recognize Utah’s permit, according to the UDPS. One criticism of Utah’s permit is that holders are not legally required to demonstrate or meet a specific level of firearm proficiency.
But while Utah law may not require proficiency training, many Utah residents seek training on their own.
There are a few facilities in Utah that offer firearms classes, but most are small-scale operations. One of the largest firearms training centers in the country is located west of Las Vegas, near Pahrump, Nev. Front Sight trains about 50,000 people each year, according to operations manager Bill Cookston. He said almost 5,000 of those students are from Utah — roughly 9 percent of the total.
Orem resident Eric Bingham and his son Brandon attended a Front Sight four-day defensive handgun course in mid-March. Bingham said it was his second time at a Front Sight course. Relatively new to shooting, he said he got his Utah concealed carry permit about a year ago and attended his first Front Sight course at the invitation of some neighborhood friends.
"I didn't want to be an irresponsible gun owner," Bingham said.
Brandon was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Guatemala a year ago and said his father wrote him a letter describing how much he enjoyed the experience. Brandon said he had limited exposure to firearms prior to attending his Front Sight course but learned a lot about shooting and gun handling and plans to apply for his concealed carry permit soon.
Women are common at Front Sight courses. Patti Walker served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a military police officer. She has been a shooting instructor at Front Sight for nine years. During that time, she estimated the percentage of women shooters attending her shooting classes has quadrupled.
Walker said that while some women attend the shooting courses with the encouragement of their husbands, other women come on their own for personal reasons. "Women today feel more empowered to own and carry a handgun," she said.
She explained that knowing how to carry and use a firearm can be a great equalizer for women or elderly people physically overmatched by a younger, stronger or larger assailant. She also said that in the shooting courses she teaches, women frequently do better than their male classmates. She said women generally seem more teachable and have fewer bad shooting habits to overcome.
National research data support the idea that interest in firearms and shooting is growing among women and younger Americans. According to a 2013 report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 37 percent of new shooters are women. Among shooters who have taken up shooting in the past five years, 66 percent are between 18 and 34 years old. A separate report from the same organization showed that 80 percent of female gun owners said they purchased firearms primarily for self-defense.
Highland resident T.R. (he does not want his name used because he is not comfortable with people knowing that he has a house full of guns) has been to seven Front Sight classes. In addition, he has taken his wife, daughters, sons, in-laws and many extended family members and friends for firearms training at Front Sight. The number of people he is directly responsible for taking to classes at Front Sight is more than 180 and growing.
Taking repeat courses seems to be a common occurrence at Front Sight. Out of 40 students in the mid-March course taken by the Binghams, nearly half had previously attended Front Sight classes. Wesley, a Utah State University student, was there for the fifth time. The day after he completed the four-day handgun course, he was enrolled for a two-day shotgun class. Heidi, a University of Utah student, was there for a second time with her mother and other family members.
T.R. said the first time he and his wife took a firearms course she was less than thrilled and thought her husband was a little nutty when it came to guns. Since then, however, he said the training has helped her understand the need for firearms and the benefit of training.
"She now realizes that without the Second Amendment, she is a 5-foot-5, 125-pound woman who would have a hard time protecting herself. With it, she can defend herself and her family against almost any threat," T.R. said.
T.R said he believes the mental training his daughters received is just as important as the actual firearms training. He said the Front Sight classes have given them confidence and helped them be situationally aware so they can avoid potential problems.
"Before they went to Front Sight, if I brought a gun out in the house my daughters would leave the room," T.R. said. "Now if a gun comes out, not only are they comfortable around it, they want it in their hands because they know they can check it and make sure it is safe."