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Leavitt aims to give gun law another shot

Lawmakers last year chickened out of the fight over where concealed weapons should be allowed. On Thursday, Gov. Mike Leavitt asked legislative leadership not to opt out of this battle again.

When lawmakers met last winter, Leavitt asked legislative leadership several times to take action on the issue - to give the state direction about whether Utahns should be allowed to take concealed guns into schools, churches, public buildings or their neighbors' homes.But lawmakers did not take action. In fact, they did the opposite. Calling the debate "too emotional," legislative leadership put the kabosh on three gun bills that aimed to control concealed weapons.

"I asked repeatedly for them to move it forward, but that didn't happen," Leavitt told reporters at his monthly televised news conference Thursday. "I would welcome it this year."

Contacted after Leavitt's comments, Senate President Lane Beattie said legislation is being prepared, but details aren't yet worked out.

"(Discussion about how to handle concealed weapons) is a highly emotional issue. So I'm not prepared to talk much about it now. The second you (talk), there's the inclination for the situation to become volatile," he said.

It would seem that something must be done. Several conflicting laws have created questions, confusion and some threats of lawsuits from Utahns who have concealed weapons permits and want to pack heat for protection.

One law says a person can't take guns on school property. Another law says a person can carry a concealed weapon anywhere except certain places like airports and jails.

In contrast to this law, Leavitt and cabinet officers decided state employees would not be allowed to carry concealed weapons into their state offices. The governor's staff knew the law would be challenged. Leavitt defended the position Thursday. "The goal is to protect the safety of people who work in state government.

There have been incidents where state employees have used guns "inappropriately" in a work setting, he said Thursday.

A personal incident also shook Leavitt on this subject.

Leavitt was wrapping up a meeting recently with a constituent who wanted to bend his ear on a couple of things.

The governor knew the visitor - not particularly well - but enough to be surprised to feel the hard metal of a weapon when he reached around to clap his guest on the back. "It became clear to me that he was packing a handgun," Leavitt said.

That encounter solidified the governor's position on guns: that there is no place for weapons - even those carried legally with a concealed weapon permit - in Utah's schools and churches.

Beyond that, a homeowner should be able to control whether someone enters his home with a concealed weapon. In this case, private-property rights must trump the right to bear arms, Leavitt said. The discussion - always hotly debated in Utah's pro right-to-bear-arms environment - pits two conflicting principles against each other. The right to bear arms and the right to have control over private property are both philosophies in which Leavitt believes.

"I ought to be able to control - in my home - whether someone has a gun," he said.

Beattie said the public doesn't understand the current debate is only over where law-abiding citizens with concealed weapons permits may take their weapons.

"We're not talking about laws already restricting guns carried by people without concealed weapons permits. You can ban those weapons anywhere. We're talking about people who have gone through the state's permitting process to carry weapons," said Beattie, who is preparing a comprehensive bill on concealed weapons for the 1998 Legislature.

Beattie hopes the bill will be ready for public debate before the session begins. Personally, he believes churches do have the right (under current law) to control all weapons on their property.

He also believes public schools and private property should be included. He and Leavitt aren't far apart on that. "I think it's an issue of you being able to control your own personal property. No one has the right to enter my property with a concealed weapon unless I give them permission," said the president.

But he struggles with how to inform a concealed weapon per-mit-tee not to bring a weapon in.

He also thinks a permit holder should be able to bring a weapon onto public property - which includes the Utah State Capitol.

A year's wait has been productive. Beattie said he's been meeting with "all sides of the issue. I'm still getting letters and telephone calls informing me of different aspects of the problem - so waiting has been good."