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Lawmakers in Utah are considering a new state symbol - an official firearm. It would be a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol invented by John Browning, who was born in Utah. It's been used by the military and police for a century.

But given the mass shooting in Tucson, some in Utah are wondering whether an official state gun is appropriate.

NPR's Howard Berkes lays out the debate as it unfolded yesterday in the statehouse.

HOWARD BERKES: Republican State Representative Carl Wimmer stood on the Utah House floor presenting an official state firearm as a benign and historic honor. The Browning M1911 semiautomatic handgun deserves official recognition, he said, just like the Dutch oven, the official state cooking pot.

CARL WIMMER: This firearm was created by John Moses Browning, who was a son of Utah pioneers, grew up in Ogden. This firearm really has defended liberty and freedom around the country and around the world. And I think that this is a very appropriate designation to capture a portion of state history.

BERKES: Guns are a big deal in Utah. The state has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, and the rest of the country takes notice.

Last year, Utah issued more than 50,000 concealed weapons permits to people who don't even live in the state. That's more than triple the number issued to Utahans.

Gun rights advocates are a powerful political force here, as Democratic Representative Carol Spackman Moss noted when she spoke on the House floor.

CAROL SPACKMAN MOSS: When I was first elected to this office, someone gave me this advice: Don't ever speak against guns, and now I'm going to break this advice.

BERKES: Moss said she had a hard time imagining school kids drawing and coloring the official Utah state symbols - the delicate sego lily, the majestic Rocky Mountain elk, the tasty sugar beet - and then turning to a lethal .45-caliber handgun.

SPACKMAN MOSS: It seems insensitive to me at this time when many people are mourning the deaths of six people in Tucson. Many people have a negative experience with guns because guns do kill people in the hands of those who use them wrongly or deranged individuals, but nevertheless, guns do kill.

BERKES: Moss named three people she knew who were victims of gun violence, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a friend, and there were two cousins - one, a soldier two weeks away from discharge at Fort Hood in Texas; the other, a teenager gazing at the stars with a friend when a thrill-seeker shot them both.

A Democratic colleague added that state symbols are supposed to unify, but guns polarize.

Republican Wimmer was given the last word.

WIMMER: There is a huge difference between the actions of a madman using a firearm, which is neither good nor bad - a firearm is just an object. It's neither good nor bad. There's a big difference between patriots using a firearm to defend our country.

BERKES: And with that, the Utah House of Representatives voted.

BERKES: Voting will be open on House Bill 219, State Firearm Designation.

BERKES: The measure passed by a 3-to-1 margin. Now, it goes to the State Senate, where it's also expected to pass given Utah's gun and political cultures.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says it has no record of an official state firearm anywhere so Utah seems poised to become the first state in the nation to choose a handgun as an enduring symbol.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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