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Video: Wildfires in Utah spark off debates over gun rights

By JohnThomas Didymus     Jun 24, 2012 in Environment
Salt Lake City - Authorities in Utah say that firearm use is causing too many wildfires. Two years ago firearm use reportedly caused 20 wildfires. Last year the number was 24. This year, officials say there have been 19 wildfires linked to firearm use.
Utah governor Gary Herbert, said on Friday that target shooters should not practise under dry conditions, MSN Now reports. Governor Herbert said: “Now is not a good time to take your gun outside and start shooting in cheat grass that’s tinder dry." The Christian Science Monitor reports that local media say that more than 1,300 residents have been evacuated as the Dump Wildfire continues to rage across northern Utah.
But with gun users in a gun-loving state adamantly insisting on their right to bear arms at all seasons, the reported incidences of wildfires caused by target practice have sparked a debate about gun rules during the dry season. Reuters reports that although campfires, fireworks and other activities that may cause wildfires are banned at this time of year, federal laws prevent states from imposing a ban on target shooting during the dry season.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that in North Carolina, gun rights activists have successful fought legal battles to prevent the state government from banning use of firearms during emergencies. The moves to stop state governments from implementing emergency gun bans is a controversial issue in the debate over gun rights.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have affirmed the right of Americans to arm themselves for protection and strengthened the legal position of gun rights activists who do not wish to see the citizenry’s access to guns restricted even during emergencies.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that John Velleco, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, said that the Supreme Court decisions have effectively shifted “the burden onto the government and legislatures to show why they need to restrict what the court has already said is an individual right."
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, however, insists that many fires are caused by target shooting. According to the state fire marshal Brent Halladay, "This year’s the polar opposite of last year. Last year, you had to work to get a fire going. If you spit wrong, you’re gonna get a fire this year."
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that fires start in May or June and end in late September, but this year firearm use started causing fires throughout the state as early as February due to unusually low precipitation (rainfall), dry heat and high winds in the West. Under such conditions bullets ricocheting off rocks can create sparks that ignite wild fires.
Local authorities are restricted by the Utah code 76-10-500 passed in 1999 that states: "Unless specifically authorized by the Legislature by statute, a local authority or state entity may not enact or enforce any ordinance, regulation, or rule pertaining to firearms."
What this code means effectively is that only federal entities and cities can impose fire safety restrictions. Any effort by state authorities to restrict target shooting for fire safety purposes must be done through the Legislature. The Salt Lake Tribune comments that getting this done through the Legislature is difficult task given Utah's "entrenched gun culture."
A recent report by The Daily Beast ranked Utah the second-most armed state in the U.S. According to FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, there were about 46,898 background checks related to gun sales per 100,000 Utah resident over a period of 18 months. This record is second only to Kentucky.
Utah also has one of the most liberal gun laws in the U.S. A fallout of Utah citizens' love of guns, The Salt Lake Tribune comments, is the freedom of individuals to "shoot into dry hills and rocks," and spark off wildfires when bullets glance of rocks and raise fire igniting sparks.
But many doubt the official statistics that suggest that firearms are causing several wildfires in the state. Jason Curry, public information officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, admits that "It’s not easy [to start a fire with guns]. A lot of people will go their whole lives shooting guns in dry rocks without incident, but it can happen."
Cpl. Todd Johnson of the Utah Highway Patrol, said tracer rounds and exploding targets were greater concern than ricocheting bullets.
Utah officials insist, however, that their investigations are thorough and exhaustively rule out other causes such as campfires and smoking.
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