Salt Lake Olympic organizers certainly impressed an international audience at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, with a display of cowboys and horses during closing ceremonies.
But there is one aspect of the mythical Wild West that could cause 2002 Winter Games organizers some very real headaches: Guns. Some 15,000 of them to be exact.That's how many Utah citizens, give or take a few hundred, have permits to legally carry weapons under Utah law. And there is absolutely nothing in current Utah law that would preclude those individuals from carrying their guns into Olympic venues.
"We are aware of the issue, and it is certainly a concern to us, as it is to all the federal and international security people, and to the International Olympic Committee," said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Craig Dearden, who heads up Utah's security efforts for the 2002 Games. "There is no question it would be seen as a security breach to have people carrying guns (into Olympic venues)."
Republican leadership in the Legislature, as well as GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, say changes will have to be made to Utah's liberal laws that allow virtually anyone who wants one to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon almost anywhere they want. Attempts this year to allow churches, schools and private businesses to prohibit guns on their premises have all been shot down by a powerful pro-gun lobby.
In fact, as the 1998 session draws to a close, it is likely that no substantial changes will be made to Utah's concealed weapons laws this year.
"No, I don't think it is appropriate that guns be carried into Olympic venues, and yes, there will be restrictions in place by 2002," promised Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful. "We're talking an international situation during the Olympics, not a local situation."
Leavitt agrees, calling the issue "one of dozens that will have to be solved" before the 2002 Games.
"It all boils down to the issue of private property rights," he said. "Should private property owners have the right to restrict people from carrying weapons on their property? I believe there are times when private property owners should have the choice, and the Olympics would certainly be one of those times. It's a matter of principle."
At the heart of the debate is whether the 15,000 Utahns who have the legal right to carry concealed weapons will relinquish their rights to carry guns Olympics or not. And given the fact that attempts to amend state law to impose such restrictions have met with repeated failure, will the international Olympic community tolerate the Games being held at venues where spectators may well be armed?
Current Utah law specifies that guns can be prohibited only from the airport and in designated secure areas, which are defined as governmental facilities like prisons and jails.
There has been considerable debate on Capitol Hill as to whether private property owners should have the right to ban weapons from their establishments. Many Olympic venues are private facilities, while those that are government buildings are not "secure facilities" as defined under current state law.
That leaves lawmakers with the prospect of amending the current law to allow private entities, businesses and governments to ban weapons - something lawmakers have been reticent to do.
"By not acting on this issue, the Legislature has put private property rights into a precarious position of being secondary to the rights to carry concealed weapons," said Sen. Robert Steiner, a Salt Lake Democrat who has tried for years to limit where concealed weapons can be carried. "Maybe the Olympics situation will be the impetus for them to actually address the issue."
Rob Bishop, who represents the Utah Sports Shooting Council on Capitol Hill, agreed the Olympics present a unique situation that must be addressed through legislation. And he predicted a willingness on the part of gun rights advocates to negotiate reasonable limits on concealed weapons during the Olympics.
The issue of an armed citizenry is foreign to most nations participating in the Olympic Games. In Japan, for example, only a handful of people have permits to even own guns. Many European nations also have prohibited private ownership of guns except in very limited circumstances.
Olympic Games are typically characterized by heavy security, including metal detectors and mandatory screening for weapons.
"It will be very interesting to see how the world sees Utah if we allow anyone who wants to carry a concealed weapon during the Games," Steiner said. "I would imagine the international governments will demand that Olympic venues be secure areas."