Utah law tests limits of gun culture in West

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

State legislators recently crafted a law that would make it harder for Utahns to get initiative measures on the ballot here. It's aimed specifically at those pushing for a referendum on the state's concealed-weapons law.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates Utah as one of the worst states "at protecting its children from gun violence."

"Utah does not hold adults responsible for leaving loaded guns around children, does not require child-safety locks to be sold with guns, and does not have any handgun-safety standards," states the gun-safety organization. "Utah also forces police to let people carry hidden handguns in public, even into schools, and does not require background checks at gun shows."

The state's current law on concealed weapons went into effect in 1996. In essence, officials may not deny an application for a concealed weapons permit except for good cause - a felony conviction, for example. A short safety course is required, but the applicant does not need to demonstrate any proficiency with a gun.

Since then, the number of people permitted to carry concealed weapons in Utah has risen from about 15,000 to nearly 57,000. Of those, about 1,000 have lost their license - in many cases for violent crime, including sexual assault and murder. Still, the total number continues to go up by about 1,000 a month.

What is it about the politics and culture of Utah that allows guns in schools?

Part of it is the Western attitude toward firearms - the right to keep and bear arms with as little government interference as possible. It also may have to do with Utah's history of violence, including the murder of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Mountain Meadows massacre of non-Mormon emigrants from Arkansas on the way to California in 1857. Utah is one of the few states where those convicted of capital crimes can be executed by firing squad.

Ever since emigrants from back East headed out the Oregon and Santa Fe trails 150 years ago, people in the rural West - particularly in the intermountain states - have thought of guns as a natural part of life and society.

Hunting, target shooting, and owning guns for protection are commonplace.

"Roughly 55 percent of Utahns have a gun in the house, including me," says Marla Kennedy, executive director of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.

Yet, she says, "We're not the wild West anymore....There's just places where guns ought not to be."

Utah's influence in such matters may manifest itself back in Washington.

Earlier this month, US Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah introduced legislation that would revoke Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns, end registration requirements for ammunition and other firearms, and remove bans on the possession or carrying of weapons at homes and workplaces.

Senator Hatch says making it easier for law-abiding citizens to have guns in the nation's capital would help reduce the city's high crime rate. He calls his bill the "D.C. Personal Protection Act."

Noting that the 17 Senate cosponsors of Hatch's bill received more than $225,000 in contributions from the gun lobby during the 2002 campaign, critics call it something else.

"It's another example of the gun lobby using senators as puppets to fulfill their legislative priorities," says Chris McGrath, executive director of Handgun-Free America, an organization dedicated to banning handguns nationwide.

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