Utah law tests limits of gun culture in West
SALT LAKE CITY
At the Salt Lake City International Airport, a sign on the door warns people not to bring firearms into the building. Yet just a few minutes away, it's easy - and perfectly legal - to stick a loaded pistol into your pocket or purse and walk into a public school.Skip to next paragraph
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Supporters of a new law that loosens restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons in Utah assert that allowing teachers, janitors, and other school staff to carry such weapons will add to school security. It will deter or prevent Columbine-like tragedies, they say, even though those carrying concealed weapons don't have to tell anybody they're doing so and even though they aren't required to have any special training.
Opponents say it's just as likely that letting untrained persons carry guns in schools will lead to accidents or the theft of weapons. School security, they say, should be left to professionals.
Utah's new law went into effect last month. It's left school administrators scrambling to figure out how to deal with it legally and politically before school starts in September. And it has law- enforcement officials worried.
One such officer is Lt. Todd Rasmussen of the Granite School District Police Department in Salt Lake City. With many large families in this predominately Mormon state, Utah has the youngest average age in the country. This school district alone has nearly 70,000 students and nine high schools.
"I don't think this is any place for a weapon to be," he says.
Taking care of vandalism, theft, school fights, growing numbers of gang-related incidents, attacks on teachers, and other offenses is a big job. Adding more guns into the mix, even if carried by normally law-abiding adults, only adds to the potential for deaths and injuries, says Mr. Rasmussen. With two children of his own, he adds, "I don't want a gun in the school with them, whether it's [carried by] a teacher, a principal, a cafeteria worker, or whatever."
The debate over legally carrying concealed weapons has raged for years.
John Lott, author of "More Guns, Less Crime" and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute argues that armed civilians - even in schools - deter crime. "Annual surveys of crime victims in the United States by the Justice Department show that when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently.
Not so, says John Donohue, professor of law at Stanford University, who has researched the subject for the Brookings Institution. In fact, he says, "criminals may become more likely to carry or be quicker to use a gun in response to increased gun carrying among prospective victims."
Unlike the local Roman Catholic and Episcopalian dioceses, which have publicly stated their opposition to concealed guns in schools, the Mormon Church has not taken an official position on the issue. But the church-owned Deseret Morning News has run a series of editorials against guns in schools. And polls consistently show that most Utahns (approximately 73 percent of whom are Mormon) want to ban guns in schools despite - or perhaps because of - the gun culture here.
This is a politically conservative state, a place where "a Utah Democrat is essentially a national Republican," says one of the relatively few activist Democrats. Still, the state legislature - which meets in a capitol filled with the history of pioneer settlement - tends to reflect an attitude even more conservative than its constituency on such issues.