Guns and Roses: Arizona and Utah Move to Adopt State Guns

State flower, state motto, state song and now ... state gun?

Call it shots fired. Two states have officially moved to declare state firearms in 2011, less than two months after the Arizona massacre that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) grievously injured on January 8th.

In both states, Utah and Arizona, the bills seem likely to become law.

The Utah legislature took up a bill certifying the Browning Model 1911 automatic pistol as the official gun of Utah just 10 days after the shooting that rocked the nation. Used by military or law-enforcement personnel since being introduced 100 years ago this March, the pistol would join a long line of Utah state symbols, from the bird (sea gull) to fruit (cherry) to rock (coal).

When the measure is signed by the state's governor, it will be the first time in American history any state has elevated a firearm into a state symbol.

State Rep. Carl Wimmer, a Republican who had introduced the bill in December, encountered little public opposition during the debate on it after the shooting in Tucson. At a late January hearing, five people spoke in its favor and one against; an amendment hearing a week later was similarly lopsided. "Representatives, this bill is very simple," Rep. Wimmer told his fellow lawmakers in late Jan. "This is a once-in-a-century opportunity.... This particular firearm is regarded as the finest handgun in the history of the world."

Wimmer emphasized that adopting a state gun wasn't a big deal and that state symbols exist "to capture a portion of state history."

During a House floor debate on the bill, Rep. Carol Moss, a Democrat, joked that when she was elected, she was told to never speak against guns. But she went on to ignore this advice, despite what she described as her background as a Second Amendment rights defender from a hunting family.

"This is the scenario I'm envisioning," Rep. Moss said. "I'm talking to an elementary school class, first, second graders, older even. And we talk about things that are important about government ... the state bird, the state symbols.... They're fun and they're engaging for kids. I'm envisioning kids coloring, drawing pictures of, answering quizzes about a gun.... It seems insensitive to me at this time, when many people are mourning the death of six people in Tucson and the serious wounding of Gabrielle Giffords, a friend of mine." She called the bill "inappropriate."

Others clearly disagreed. That day, the House passed the bill on for Senate consideration with 51 yay votes, 19 nos, and 4 representatives absent. It passed the Senate in early February and now awaits signature by Gov. Gary Herbert (R).

Meanwhile, 57 percent of Utah residents oppose such a measure, according to a poll conducted in early February (PDF).

In late February, Arizona legislators also offered that the state should have its own official state firearm: the historic Colt revolver.

SB 1610 is still being processed by the Arizona legislature, but all signs point to its passage.

Both Utah and Arizona legislators have said the moves are innocent attempts to honor guns of the past. Utah proponents of the bill stressed the Browning pistol's ties to the historic state figure and weapons innovator, John Moses Browning -- even as one of Browning's descendants, writing in a Salt Lake Tribune editorial, called the elevation of the pistol into a state symbol a "crassly political gesture" and "no honor." Arizona sponsors, for their part, have been quick to cite the rough-and-tumble days of the Wild West -- and made little mention of the tumult of 2011, courtesy of Jared Loughner's Glock.

While it is the case that some state seals and flags already feature weapons, such as a battle axe on Colorado's state seal or a militiaman's gun visible on Delaware's state flag, the historical context for such depictions is clear. Those symbols, as well, were designated much further back in our country's past (Colorado's seal in 1861, Delaware's flag in 1913). And the weapons depicted were never the focal point of these illustrations -- whereas these new measures single out, highlight, and celebrate the guns in question.

"It was mentioned that state symbols should be unifying," Rep. Wimmer said during a Utah floor hearing on the bill he sponsored. "I would challenge anyone to tell me," he said, referring to other state symbols, "how the astronomical system of Beehive cluster is unifying? Or how the cooking pot being the Dutch oven is unifying? State symbols are meant to be historical.... It's wonderful that we can have children in our schools learning about our state symbols."

Indeed, the new proposals reflect, more than anything else, the power of the American gun rights movement and the culture of fear about gun rights it has fostered, especially in the wake of the Tucson shooting. After Loughner's crime, many observers such as The Atlantic's own Edward Tenner noted a spike in gun sales across America. The Loughner shooting, not surprisingly, ignited a wave of fear among gun advocates about possible gun control measures, spurring advocates to act. Just last week, Texas Republicans moved toward making the state the second to allow students to conceal and carry weapons on campus.

The first state to pass a concealed carry law for students? Utah.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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