Backlash Against Guns On Utah Campuses

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There was a time when the only weapon Janalee Tobias had was her voice. Now the mother of two carries a gun. As an unarmed, uneasy student at Brigham Young University, she often walked to the library through an area notorious for its high incidence of rapes. "Many times, I had to walk there alone at night, and my only protection was to sing hymns or talk louder," she says. "I remember being scared to death."

Today, after several classes on weapons handling, Ms. Tobias believes that carrying a concealed gun is not only safer but more responsible. Yet others, worried by the presence of guns in the classroom, aren't convinced that stowing a Beretta in a purse or a pocket is such a good idea.

Tobias's experience outlines an enduring nationwide debate over two fundamental rights - the right to bear arms and the right of people to control their private property. In Utah, it is being played out in colleges, churches, and businesses where owners and administrators are wary of the recent proliferation of concealed weapons, and many citizens are adamant about their right - and need - to carry them.

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The battle is particularly acute here because Utah is one of the few states that allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons almost anywhere. Some federal buildings and restricted areas of airports are off-limits in every state, but most states also list places like schools, churches, public transportation, and parks. Not Utah. And Salt Lake City lawyer Steve Gunn, a member of Utahns Against Gun Violence, says this has led to a dangerous laissez-faire attitude.

"Most people don't need firearms to protect themselves," Mr. Gunn says. "The availability of firearms has resulted in an increased incidence of suicide and has contributed to violence among juveniles."

Gun-rights advocates say the evidence is lacking. "There have been no problems with the concealed weapons law," says Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Bishop, a former House Speaker who also lobbies for gun rights.

Nevertheless, the Legislature's refusal to pass limits has spawned a coalition of a dozen denominations, led by the Episcopal bishop of Utah, opposing guns in church. And while the largest and most powerful church in the state, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would say only that guns are inappropriate in church, church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo came out in support of laws to exclude firearms from its campus. "BYU is mindful of the importance that Utah citizens place on the rights conferred on them by the Second Amendment, but feel that even these rights must yield to the right of private property owners to provide for the safety and protection of those who enter their property or reside there," the statement says.

Most recently, the state-run University of Utah in Salt Lake City went even further by banning weapons on campus and at off-campus university events.

This solution worries some, and challenges are now mounting. While the Utah Legislature is reviewing the ban, an editor of a local gun magazine is planning to meet with university officials and has promised to "take whatever action is necessary." Besides, says Tobias, the point is that no place is immune to crime. "We live in an age of ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends, and places that are supposed to be safe havens, aren't."

Still, others say that the tenacity of gun-rights advocates may obscure the key issue: whether a property owner should have the right to determine if guns will be allowed there.

For his part, Representative Bishop says he tries to be reasonable, and that when the right to bear arms is in conflict with one's personal property rights, the presumption should be with the property owner. He doesn't think more-restrictive laws can solve these conflicts. "We don't need a statute; all we need is a simple verbal request," he says.

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