SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah House is scheduled to debate the designation of a semiautomatic pistol as the official state gun amid protest from a group that says it's inappropriate because of recent mass shootings.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, told a House committee Monday that the state should have the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol as one of its state symbols. Wimmer said it would honor John Browning, a Utah native who invented the gun in 1911.
"He invented a firearm that has defended American values and the traditions of this country for 100 years," Wimmer said.
Utah has 24 state symbols recognizing the history, geography and culture of the state. They include a state cooking pot, a state tree, a state hymn and a state folk dance.
The House Political Subdivisions Committee passed the bill to add a state gun on a 9-2 vote. The full House could debate the measure as early as today.
Wimmer said the Browning M1911 is widely used by the military, police officers and private citizens, which is why he chose the pistol instead of another Browning gun.
Gun Violence Prevention Center board member Steve Gunn said honoring the M1911 is wrong because the people who opened fire in the most recent U.S. mass shootings used semiautomatic pistols. That includes the Jan. 8 Arizona shooting in which six people were killed and 13 -- including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- were wounded with a Glock pistol.
"It's an embarrassment to the state to have as a symbol what was used only a few weeks ago to kill innocent people," Gunn said.
House Minority Leader David Litvak, D-Salt Lake City, said while he opposes designating a state gun, the Arizona shooting did not give the debate any urgency.
"We need to be careful about using that tragedy to push a political position," he said.
He suggested the state honor Browning in a different way that focuses on his many inventions, not just one of his guns.
Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, who voted against the measure, House Bill 219, said she did not see the debate as pro- or anti-gun. Instead, it is about the message sent by the state having such a polarizing symbol, she said.
"It has a lot of deep- rooted, complex and complicated meanings on a wide spectrum, from defending life to taking it," Seelig said.
Seelig said she supports gun rights and has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. But like Litvack, she would prefer to honor Browning in a different way.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, told the committee that recognizing the M1911 is an appropriate honor for Browning. Instead of the gun being blamed for killing people, it should be credited for saving lives on the battlefield, he said.
"Tragic events happen because of bad people in this world. But handguns, and firearms in general, do not kill people," Sandstrom said. "We need to stop demonizing firearms."