In Utah, Birkenstocks, backpacks, and guns?

University of Utah fights a law allowing concealed weapons on campus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Utah has never been shy about its guns.

Here, a small town called Virgin once passed a law requiring that all households have a firearm. Here, an American with a concealed-weapons permit from any state can carry a handgun into a day-care center or an elementary school, and residents once protested a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney because they weren't allowed to bring their weapons.

Not surprisingly, Utah again took a strong Second Amendment stand this spring, overthrowing a 30-year University of Utah policy that banned concealed weapons on campus. But in a twist, "the U" is fighting back.

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"There are places where guns are not appropriate," says spokeswoman Coralie Adler, who adds that the university will challenge the law in court.

In many ways, it marks the opening salvo in a new war over where and when Americans can carry a gun.

For 20 years, the battle has focused on whether states should allow everyday citizens to carry firearms in public, as well as how easy a concealed-weapons permit should be to get. Now, gun-rights groups appear to have won all the states they can, and those 46 states are turning to the question at issue in Utah: Where are guns appropriate?

"That's going to be the fight in all these states," says William Vizzard, a gun-control expert at California State University in Sacramento.

There are already hints about the shape that debate might take. So far, modest steps have met with some success. States are increasingly working out deals with other states so their concealed-weapons permits will be valid elsewhere. And Arizona looks set to amend its concealed-weapons laws to allow permit holders with a gun to enter a business that sells alcohol - so long as they don't drink.

More radical efforts, however, have failed. Vermont has long been the only state with no gun laws, meaning that all residents can carry guns without a permit. But when New Hampshire voted on a similar proposal several weeks ago, it was overwhelmingly defeated.

That leaves Utah as the standard bearer for expanding the rights of gun owners, and its battle with the university is merely the newest addition to a 150-year narrative. Like nearly all the settlers of America's westward expansion, Brigham Young's Mormon pioneers came to this valley armed, and after they arrived they quickly set up the Nauvoo Legion - an unofficial frontier army.

To Utahns and many of their big sky brethren, the Second Amendment words about a "well-regulated militia" - not just "the right to keep and bear arms" - point to a treasured heritage. Moreover, in a place where two rural towns once voted on whether to become "UN-free zones," and where trust in government runs as deep as the shallow pan of the Great Salt Lake, guns represent something more.

"[Guns] are important as a hedge to government tyranny," says Mitch Vilos, author of several books about Utah gun law. "The pioneers that settled this land were very independent, and we cherish the right to determine our own destiny."

It also helps that Utah is overwhelmingly Republican. Since Republicans gained ground nationwide in the 2002 elections, six states have significantly expanded concealed-weapons laws - each because of a shift in power in the state legislature.

In all, only about 3 percent of Utah adults hold concealed-weapons permits. Yet Utah has repeatedly affirmed their support, prodding private-property owners, churches, and even the Olympic governing body to open their doors to neighbors carrying guns.

When the Olympic Salt Lake Organizing Committee refused to relent, the state took the unprecedented step of assuming liability if concealed-weapons permit holders were hurt at the 2002 Winter Games - and could prove that their gun would have protected them. At Mr. Cheney's speech in August 2001, state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff paid for gun lockers outside the venue with his own campaign funds.

Lawmakers have even pushed forward without public support. On the issue of guns on campus, 64 percent of Utahns feel that universities "probably should or definitely should" be able to set their own policy, according to a poll by the Deseret News.

James Sewell would agree with that. In a quiet moment before the blitz of finals begins, he confesses that he hasn't heard a lot about the new bill, but he'd like to hear more. "This has the potential to affect people dramatically," says the sandy-haired student, dressed in a black fleece and thumbing through a biography of journalist Hunter Thompson. "I don't want to be sitting next to someone in class who is carrying a gun."

In truth, many states allow concealed weapons at public universities. Of the 37 states that - like Utah - give out permits to anyone who meets a small set of requirements, only nine specifically ban concealed weapons from universities, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State by state, concealed-weapons laws vary so widely that any broader generalization about where guns are allowed is difficult. The most common restrictions are for courtrooms, mental-health-facilities, and schools - not to mention areas under federal law, such as airports. But coming years will likely see lawmakers further refine their lists, and Utah will almost certainly be at the forefront.

Says Luis Tolley of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: "Utah shows the extreme edge of it."

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