Duck & Cover 

Legislature aims for triviality

I hate to see winter coming. It is not that I mind shoveling snow, wearing wool, shivering in cold cars or scraping icy windshields. What bothers me is that the onset of winter sets the stage for another performance of the Utah Legislature, live and loopy, for a lengthy six-week run.

As nighttime temperatures fall into the 20s, the bile begins to rise involuntarily, like sap in a sugar maple. By February, I will be fuming. I will have stopped reading any accounts of what passes for legislative business. To read them is just too irritating. As legislators’ self-interest plays out in the news media, my self-interest is best served by a head-in-the-sand response. I can ignore the Legislature, the 45 days will pass, the sun will gain strength and—absent such controversies as 2012’s misbegotten sex-ed bill—I can return to newspapers as the crocuses bloom. I know that no civics teacher would condone my disengagement, but in my own defense, I must say that ignorance is a crude form of anger management that sees me through the dark days of February. A better man would grit his teeth and carry on. I just can’t do it anymore. I have been unmanned by a surfeit of hypocrisy and triviality from Capitol Hill.

Imagine my distress, then, when I opened The Salt Lake Tribune on a balmy day to see, “Lack of human-shaped targets at public ranges sparks lawmaker debate.” The headline hit me like an unexpected frost, the chilly harbinger of yet another winter of discontent.

The story carried Michael McFall’s byline. I give him credit for writing it without a tinge of you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me incredulity. It is a story about two state senators with too much time on their hands. Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, are reportedly in a snit because the shooting ranges run by the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) won’t let shooters fire bullets at targets shaped like humans. By the final paragraph of McFall’s story, Hillyard has asserted that ordinary bull’s-eye targets are inadequate to “train in lawful self-defense” and Madsen faults the DWR for the “dangerous precedent” of dictating what kind of target may be used on its taxpayer-funded ranges.

You would think that the two senators would have better things to do, even if it is the off-season and headlines are hard to come by. What could be more inconsequential than a brouhaha over paper targets? Had it been an archery range, neither man would have paid passing notice, but because the kerfuffle is gun-related, they are up in arms. Nevermind that the subject is as trivial as anything Kardashian.

The Legislature does not shrink from triviality. You don’t have to look far to find examples. How about 2012’s bill to ban photos of cows and pigs without the owner’s permission? Or the Mineral & Petroleum Industry Act, designed to see that Utah’s students know about the good works of extractive industries? Or the bill to require civics teachers to teach that the United States is a “constitutional republic”? Or the Zion curtain, or the official state gun?

I have noticed that most of the triviality in each legislative session is rooted in one of five or six underlying categories. Guns is one. So are liquor, immigration, education and the federal government. Any spin-off from one of these—no matter how frivolous it might be—will attract the same attention as Hillyard and Madsen lavished on the DWR’s targets. And that’s just one reason to spend February in the dark. Another is to compare the number of hours squandered on the frivolous to hours withheld from such pressing issues as air pollution, water management and ethics reform.

I have never set foot on a DWR range, but I have spent a lot of time on Army ranges where soldiers shoot at head-and-shoulder silhouette targets. Soldiers are supposed to shoot people; Utah’s gun owners are not. It seems like target shooters at DWR ranges would feel at home with targets shaped like deer, not humans. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter what kind of target you are shooting. With a magic marker and a roll of butcher paper, I’ll give you a target with Big Foot, Big Bird, Big Brother or whatever rouses the Annie Oakley within you. What is important in gun handling is marksmanship, the ability to hit what you are aiming at.

Therein lies opportunity for Hillyard and Madsen. Instead of blustering over paper targets, they could do some good in a related area of real concern. Utah has licensed at least 347,000 people to carry a concealed weapon, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Because firing the gun is not required to get a permit, I worry that a lot of people with no marksmanship skills whatsoever are cruising the malls with a pistol on their hip. Were they to find themselves in a worst-case situation—a bad guy in a crowd—the risk to bystanders from their errant bullets would be catastrophic. My advice to Hillyard and Madsen? Forget the targets. Sponsor serious legislation to require applicants for a gun-carrying permit to demonstrate basic marksmanship skills and then to do so annually for as long as the permit is valid.

Frankly, I don’t see it happening. Nor do I see other legislators kicking their triviality habit cold turkey. It is a sorry state of affairs. The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a normal winter for Utah in 2013. For me, that means more bad air and more bad news to hide from come February.

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