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Loose gun-control law leaves cities unarmed

Want to pack heat into City Hall? Feel free - it's perfectly legal.

Even if you have bullets in your gun, you can waltz with perfect confidence right through the doors of, say, the Salt Lake City-County Building, stroll past the signs declaring "Loaded firearms prohibited in this building," tip your hat to the ominous-looking, but in this case, helpless uniformed guards, and sit yourself down in City Council chambers with a smile on your face.The most inconvenience your .45 might create, for you anyway, is poking you in the leg when you sit down.

You might think a gun with bullets in it would be a "loaded" gun prohibited by the signs, but, legally, you would be wrong. According to state law a gun isn't considered loaded unless it takes only one physical action - namely, pulling the trigger - to discharge it. If the bullet isn't in the chamber and you have to cock the gun before pulling the trigger, it isn't loaded.

State law prohibits firearms - loaded or not - in certain places such as airports and schools. But municipal buildings aren't included, and cities can't do anything about it.

That's something Salt Lake City Attorney Roger Cutler isn't too happy about.

"The proper role of cities is to provide refuge," he said in a speech Wednesday at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute. "Cities should be able to deal with these issues."

Even though Utah municipalities are charged with regulating the "health, safety and welfare" of their residents, their power to regulate firearms was largely taken away in 1994 by the Legislature. After a rash of shooting incidents in 1993, Salt Lake City enacted an ordinance much like the yet-to-come federal Brady Bill that imposed a mandatory background check on 18- to 25-year-olds trying to buy guns.

The ordinance survived a court challenge, but the Legislature overrode the courts and took the cities' power away, placing the bulk of firearm regulatory power in the hands of the state.

Now, Cutler said, cities can do nothing but sit back and hope some crazy doesn't take advantage of the loose laws.

"We can say they can't discharge a firearm within city limits, and we can exclude `loaded' firearms, but we can't regulate possession," he said. "We've been pre-empted."

The high bench that Salt Lake City Council members sit behind has reinforced steel embedded in it, just in case somebody who happens to have a gun on him decides he'd like to take a potshot at them. Judges don't have to deal with that - unlike cities, they legally can have metal detectors at the doors of their courtrooms.

Let us go back to the late 1800s, Cutler says. Place: some wild and woolly frontier town - Abilene, say, or Dodge City. Situation: a clan of tough hombres armed to the teeth has pulled up to city limits, determined to free their younger brother who's cooling his heels in jail after a brawl in the local saloon.

The steely eyed local sheriff, standing alone in the dusty street, meets the crowd. One hand is on his pearl-handled six-gun, and the other is pointing to the sign:

"Check your guns."

There is a moment of dangerous tension. The sheriff and clan leader face off, eyes narrowing, hands at the ready. The hot, still air crackles with deadly energy.

Finally, the clan leader smiles, moves his hand away from his gun, and relaxes. He unbuckles his gun belt, motions his boys to do the same, and they ride into town for a drink.

"The sheriff is a hero, right?" asks Cutler. He made his city a safer place. So why, in a supposedly more civilized world, has that authority been taken away?

"We ought to be providing the means to local governments to achieve their objectives and not micromanaging their affairs," Cutler said. "There is a great deal of micromanaging done by the state."

Cutler partly blames local governments for the situation. Many city officials don't "stake out their turf," and they accept state interference without protest.

However it is regulated, by city or state, gun control is a guaranteed emotional issue in Utah. Some residents are wedded to their guns the way others are wedded to their cars.

As the bumper sticker says, "You can take my gun away when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."