State Right to Bear Arms in Utah

Posted on August 12, 2015

Article I, § 6 of the Utah Constitution, as originally drafted (in effect from 1896 until 1984), provided: “The people have the right to bear arms for their security and defense, but the Legislature may regulate the exercise of this right by law.” The Supreme Court of Utah interpreted this language to allow the state legislature to regulate firearms extensively.1

Article I, § 6 was amended in 1984. It now states that “[t]he individual right of the people to keep and bear arms for security and defense of self, family, others, property, or the state, as well as for other lawful purposes shall not be infringed; but nothing herein shall prevent the legislature from defining the lawful use of arms.”

In the 2004 case State v. Willis, the Supreme Court of Utah rejected defendant’s article I, § 6 challenge to Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-503(2)(a), which bars certain persons from possessing firearms.2 The court held that while the term “use” in article I, § 6 is ambiguous, the intent of the legislature and the voting public in adopting the amendment in no way sought to “endow felons with a right to possess guns.”3 To accept defendant’s absolute reading of article I, § 6, the court stated, would lead to “absurd results” where classes of persons such as prison inmates, mental incompetents and minor children would have a constitutional right to possess arms.4

In that same year, in Hansen v. America Online, Inc., the Supreme Court of Utah addressed whether Utah has a strong interest  in favoring the keeping and bearing of arms as an individual, constitutionally-protected right flowing from article I, § 6, and whether that right prevents an employer from prohibiting employees’ possession of firearms in the workplace.5 While this case was pending the state legislature adopted section 53-5a-102, which states that the individual right to “keep and bear arms” is a constitutionally-protected right under article I, § 6. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court of Utah, reviewing section 53-5a-102 and its legislative history, held that the State’s  interest regarding the keeping and bearing of arms was not strong enough to prevent employers from restricting the possession of weapons in the workplace.6 The court read the language of section 53-5a-102(7) (which states that “[n]othing in [section 53-5a-102] restricts or expands private property rights”) to “indicate that the legislature has purposefully declined to give the right to keep and bear arms absolute preeminence over the right to regulate one’s own private property.”7

  1. See, e.g., People v. Beorchia, 530 P.2d 813, 814 (Utah 1974) (holding that the state right to “bear arms” did not invalidate a statute prohibiting non-citizens from possessing firearms). []
  2. 100 P.3d 1218 (Utah 2004). []
  3. Id. at 1220. []
  4. Id. at 1222.  See also State v. Wacek, 703 P.2d 296 (Utah 1985) (upholding a conviction for possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, statutorily defined by Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-503 as a felon, illegal alien, or controlled substance user). []
  5. 96 P.3d 950 (Utah 2004). []
  6. Id. at 955. []
  7. Id. []