SALT LAKE CITY — When Chris Machen rides into the backwoods of the West, she takes along a few friends and a small arsenal of guns for protection. Her husband, on the other hand, remains behind to fight against the gathering force of gun-rights advocates.
Bernie Machen, president of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, says he's not antigun. He's just trying to maintain the university's prohibition of guns in the face of a Utah law that allows people with permits to carry concealed weapons. And he's found himself at the center of a showdown between the rights of free speech and self-protection outlined in the US Constitution.
"Given the unique environment of a college campus, that is not a place for guns," President Machen says.
On Oct. 2, the US District Court here will consider whether Utah's law allowing concealed weapons is a federal or state issue. If it bounces back to state court, the court may well decide that the law does not put campuses off limits to people with concealed-gun permits.
With one of the nation's most permissive weapons laws, conservative Utah has struggled with its wild-West image. Gun activists held their tongues during this year's Winter Olympics, when security was heightened because of the Sept. 11 attacks. But they have since regrouped and focused on academic institutions, which have long banned weapons out of concern that their presence could stifle the free flow of ideas.
The issue of "concealed carry" is the latest thrust in the movement for the right to bear arms. But a coalition of religious and educational interests has now formed to stem the tide of concealed weaponry. A tenured law professor at the U of U, for instance, has threatened to start an exodus from the state's halls of learning if schools are forced to allow concealed guns.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he's caught in the middle, trying to respond to various interests in the state.
The issue is a complex one in a state that has seen a series of failed gun mandates of late. The small southern town of Virgin tried early this year to require guns in every home, and more recently, the state's judges uniformly refused to abide by a law instructing them to place lockers in courtrooms so people could store guns there.
"I don't know why these gun issues keep coming up," Mr. Shurtleff says. "But I think we're where we are because certain organizations or groups don't feel as strongly about the Second Amendment right, and so are willing to challenge it."
In Utah, the "it" is the state constitution as well as the Second Amendment. "There is an individual right to protect yourself or others, which is much stronger here than [that granted by] the Second Amendment," Shurtleff says.
During the controversy in Virgin, Shurtleff told town officers that only the legislature could make gun laws. It sparked new awareness of the multiplicity of gun policies in Utah, from the governor's ban at the state Capitol to prohibitions at virtually every educational institution in the state.
Legislators pushed the envelope, insisting that Shurtleff bring the stragglers in line. At first, the University of Utah stood alone in its refusal to budge on its gun ban, even when lawmakers tried to cut Machen's salary in half.
Now, all other universities and colleges in the state, including Brigham Young University, a private, Mormon Church-owned institution, have lined up with the U of U. In a state where almost 90 percent of elected leaders are Mormon, BYU's entry is seen as an effort to curtail Second Amendment fervor here.
BYU President Merrill Bateman's affidavit stated that he knew of no situation on the BYU campus "that could have been alleviated by the intervention of citizens armed with concealed weapons. On the other hand, there have been situations where the presence of firearms, even in the hands of law-abiding citizens, would have complicated, escalated, and ultimately aggravated the situation."
John Flynn, a U of U law professor, believes legislators are trying to elevate the right to carry a concealed weapon above all other rights. A few years from retirement, Professor Flynn says he'll quit the university if its policy of 25 years is changed.
"I don't care if it's guns or Darwin or divine intervention," Flynn says. "The state legislature has no business invading the university's right to manage its own internal affairs."
Polls show that a large majority of state residents favor restricting concealed weapons in churches and on campuses, but an initiative along those lines failed to gain enough signatures to be placed on this November's ballot.
Gun-rights advocates are standing their ground, and say Machen is pushing a social agenda in which all guns are viewed as bad.
"With a concealed weapon, you don't know it's concealed," says Rob Bishop, a gun lobbyist, former state Speaker of the House, and a congressional candidate. "The idea of something no one knows about having a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas just doesn't have a lot of logic. All those arguments about the ambience of a college being harmed I find that ludicrous."
But Machen says the issue strikes at the heart of academia, and five national higher education associations have filed friend of the court briefs on his side.