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Tuesday, November 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pro-gun Utah wants colleges to allow firearms

By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Chicago Tribune

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SALT LAKE CITY — In this reddest of red states it's not surprising to find fierce gun-rights advocates who put weapons right up there with God and country.

What is startling to many, however, is that some are advocating for concealed firearms to be allowed on public university campuses.

"Most people understand that young people and guns are not a good mix," said John Flynn, a law professor at the University of Utah. "But here, we've got this macho thing."

Flynn does not mean the academic institution, where guns have been prohibited for almost 30 years. He is talking about the state Legislature, which passed a law last spring mandating that the university lift the ban, clearing the way for concealed weapons in dorms and classrooms, at athletic events and everywhere else on campus.

Since the Columbine High School and other high-profile school shootings occurred in the 1990s, most lawmakers have worked diligently to keep firearms out of the hands of students. But in Utah, the Legislature told the university it had no authority to carve out its own weapons-free zone.

"It's the state that makes regulations for the university, not the other way around," said Republican state Sen. Michael Waddoups, the bill's sponsor. "Besides, people need to be able to protect themselves. ... You can't take guns away from the good guys before you take them away from the bad guys."

In separate polls conducted among students, alumni and citizens, a majority favored maintaining the no-guns policy.

A ruling from the state Supreme Court is expected next month. Activists say that what happens here could affect other public universities, especially those in states with a strong pro-gun lobby.

In Utah, any resident 21 or older who can prove "good character" can get a concealed-weapons permit.

Firearms can be carried anywhere except airports, prisons, courthouses, police stations and mental hospitals.
Even so, most colleges have long had prohibitions on students' packing heat. But none has been as adamant about upholding them as the University of Utah.

"It's simply a matter of academic freedom," said Flynn, adding that the presence of guns could stifle the open exchange of ideas so essential to a university environment.

But State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff argued that in a concealed-carry state, the university's policy violated state law. The school sued him in federal district court in Salt Lake City to have the ban upheld, and the state appealed.

Shurtleff insists he is merely trying to clarify the law.

"I did not choose to put myself in the middle of this," said Shurtleff, also a Republican. "One of my jobs is to give legal opinions when asked ... and that's what I'm doing. It's not about the right to bear arms. It's about who gets to make policy, the university or the Legislature."

Flynn said if the Legislature prevails, the university would be hobbled in its efforts to attract stellar faculty and students and research grants, and its accreditation would be at risk.

"The state could be sending an important economic institution down the drain," he said. "... I can't imagine that many parents would want to send their children to a school where guns are widely available."

Alex Lowe, president of student government at the university, said the issue is "huge" for the faculty.

"Students can react very inappropriately when they get a grade that they don't think they deserve," said Lowe, a senior finance major. "What would it be like if you brought guns into the picture?"

That is precisely the type of scenario that shows why concealed weapons should be allowed, Waddoups said.

"It doesn't matter if it's a woman crossing the parking lot, a janitor working after hours or a professor facing an unhappy student," he said. "What we are really after here is a citizen's right to protect himself."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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