Utah Legislature Orders University
To Let Law Students Carry Guns

June Kronholz
Wall Street Journal
May. 31, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY - Tefton J. Smith, who graduated from the University of Utah Law School this month, says he often carried a .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol to his classes. The gun was so small other students never noticed it or said anything if they did.

Smith, 29, says he has never been the victim of a violent crime and that, at 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds, he probably could defend himself if threatened. But carrying a gun has become a habit, he says, and lately, carrying a concealed weapon on campus has become "somewhat of a political statement," too.

For decades, the University of Utah has prohibited its students and employees from carrying firearms on campus. But this year, the Utah Legislature passed a law requiring the university to lift the ban.

That law went into effect this month. The university says it won't recognize it. So in a state where a kindergarten teacher can tote a weapon in class and lawmakers carry guns in the Statehouse, a showdown is coming. Utahns "sometimes think gun possession is a God-given right, not a constitutional right," says Jake Garn, a university trustee and former U.S. senator. "I tell them I don't ever remember seeing Jesus packing heat."

The spat between the university and the lawmakers began two years ago when Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff challenged a state plan to bar concealed weapons from state offices. In a footnote to his legal opinion, he added that the university's weapons ban also was unlawful.

"It's the Legislature, the voice of the people, that sets these policies," says Shurtleff, a University of Utah Law School graduate who adds that he carries a gun in the state Capitol. The Legislature has banned weapons only in prisons, courthouses, mental hospitals, airports and police stations, making them legally acceptable everywhere else.

The university went to state court to challenge Shurtleff's opinion, and the court sided with the university. So in March, the Legislature passed a law overruling the court.

"I'm against guns on campus, too," says Michael Waddoups, the Republican state senator from Salt Lake City who sponsored the bill. "But until we take guns away from the criminals, we can't take them away from the law-abiding," including students, professors and after-hours cleaning crews, he adds.

Most public and private colleges in Utah have weapons bans similar to the University of Utah's, and at private schools like Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University, the prohibitions can remain in place. Utah's five other public colleges have acceded to the 3-week-old law, but University of Utah trustees have ordered the school to fight.

The university defends its ban by claiming academic freedom from state control and concerns about the "chilling effect" on classroom debate if students start carrying firearms. It also cites popular sentiment: A faculty senate vote, and student and public-opinion polls overwhelmingly favor the gun ban.

Mostly, the university argues that testosterone-fueled campus high jinks or tensions over grades could erupt in deadly violence. Between 1973 and 2002, the university says, there were seven firearms incidents involving students or outsiders, and three of them were student suicides.

"Tensions do run high in my office," says an academic counselor in the engineering department who says he has flunked out three students this year. He asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation. He is retiring at age 60 this year, he adds, in part because of fears of facing a gun-toting student one day.

Those who want to lift the ban say guns have a deterrent effect. Daren Mortenson, who headed a gun-rights group at the law school before hegraduated this month, says the university's gun ban is "like advertising, 'I have $10,000 cash on my person. Please feel free to take it.' "

The university's code of conduct prohibits "any firearm" on campus and allows for sanctions including dismissal if any student or employee is found carrying a gun. University spokesman Fred Esplin says "it is particularly disturbing that a law student" like Smith would carry a gun, but he adds that weapons carriers on campus are "very, very rare." The current argument, though, centers only on concealed weapons, and on a 1996 Utah law that grants a concealed-weapons permit to anyone 21 or older, can prove "good character" and attends a short firearms course.

Since that law passed, 58,000 people, or about one of every 43 Utahns, has acquired a permit, and permit holders have pushed for ever-greater access for their weapons. Two years ago, legislators voted to allow permit holders to carry guns in elementary and high schools. It backed down from insisting that churches allow their parishioners to carry concealed weapons but required that they post notices if they don't want guns in the pews.

Three dozen states have laws like Utah's that entitle residents to a concealed-weapons permit, but most of them ban guns in schools. Oregon and New Hampshire are the only other states whose laws allow concealed weapons on campus, says the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, which tracks gun laws. But like Utah, public colleges in those states have their own rules that ban guns.

The University of Utah says that in the 2002-03 academic year, there were 13 violent crimes on its 29,000-student campus, or about one for every 2,230 students. Still, Waddoups says he is appalled by campus crime and would be comforted if there were concealed-weapons carriers around. "These are good people," he adds.