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Utah shooters spark 20 wildfires -- and a gun rights controversy

June 24, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Smoke fills the sky as a fire burns near Eagle Mountain, Utah.
Smoke fills the sky as a fire burns near Eagle Mountain, Utah. (Paul Fraughton / Associated…)

Twenty.

That’s the number of wildfires officials believe recreational shooters have caused so far this summer in Utah. One of those wildfires — the Dump fire 40 miles south of Salt Lake City — prompted 2,300 evacuation notices and has led to a 6,023-acre blaze.

It has also led to something of a constitutional controversy in Utah, where state law prevents state agencies from enacting any rule to restrict recreational shooting without the Legislature’s permission — even in areas at high risk for fires, even during a drought.

Which might explain why the Utah governor is begging residents to be more careful.

“Now is not a good time to take your gun outside and start shooting in cheat grass that’s tinder dry,” Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday, the Christian Science Monitor, reported

The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board agreed — slightly more stridently — saying, “the stupidity of some humans” has created “a recipe for a wildfire season with horrific potential for destruction.”

“Conservative Utah legislators, in their usual frenzy to protect the all-important right to keep and shoot guns, have dictated that no state officials other than themselves can 'enact or enforce any ordinance, regulation or rule pertaining to firearms,’ ” the paper wrote.

The Tribune added that “the folly of the law prohibiting agencies such as the State Division of Forestry from imposing limits is already evident. In this dangerously dry year, shooter-caused fires have already reached the total for all of 2010,” which was 20.

Utah had 24 fires last year. At this year's pace, with three months left in the dry season, that number will likely be eclipsed.

Clark Aposhian, the head of Utah's Shooting Sports Council, said he thought officials should pump the brakes until they have more information.

"I need to know more definitively what is to blame for these fires," he told the Daily Herald, adding that he didn’t condone improper shooting; those caught starting a fire can be charged with recklessness and sued for damages.

Aposhian told the Daily Herald that the shooting council would conduct its own tests to figure out which ammunition starts fires.

Utah is not alone in keeping permissive gun laws during an emergency; the Christian Science Monitor noted that activists in Colorado and North Carolina have successfully battled efforts by state governments to clamp down.

The Monitor cited a lawsuit filed by North Carolina gun owners fighting a gun ban inspired by a 2010 snowstorm in it, Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said, “Citizens do not surrender their civil rights just because of a natural or man-made disaster.”

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