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Leave guns at home, State Hospital says

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Utahns properly permitted to carry concealed handguns will either have to lock them in their cars while visiting the state mental hospital or walk directly from the parking lot into the main administration building and have their weapons locked up by staff.

Monday morning Utah State Hospital administrators presented a revised rule on weapons to a legislative oversight committee. No gun rights advocates spoke, leaving committee members to surmise that officials in the state's main mental hospital had reached a reasonable compromise.The latest debate once again points out conflicts in Utah's concealed weapons law with other laws that give various state administrators the power to ban all weapons from state facilities.

Monday, several legislators worried about how law enforcement officers would deal with their weapons while visiting the State Hospital, in Provo.

Key to any weapons rule is the safety of staff and patients, said hospital administrator Mark Payne.

"The patients at our facility are mentally ill. And they do have problems interpreting (situations). They may interpret weapons as threatening. We need to make sure that that population doesn't mix with weapons," said Payne. "There shouldn't be any individuals having weapons at our facility."

That sounds logical enough. But the Legislature is controlled by Republicans and the guns-at-the-state-hospital issue was addressed by several county GOP conventions this year, with delegates saying that Second Amendment rights to bear arms shouldn't be abridged by the state.

"The difficulty we have here is that there is clearly a conflict (in the law). One (law) grants authority and another (law) says you don't have it," said Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, administrative rules co-chairman.

Senate chairman Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, admitted to Payne that his committee had put the hospital in a difficult position. Stephenson said legislators want to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens with weapons permits while being responsible to the safety of the hospital staff, patients and visitors.

"I don't see a conflict," said Sen. Dave Buhler, R-Salt Lake. If he drove his family by the grassy hospital grounds and decided it was a nice place to picnic, "we would quickly find out it may look like a park, but it certainly isn't a park."

The grounds are fenced, but there is no gate where visitors have to stop. There are not any "No Tresspassing" signs on the fence, but there is a large sign at the entrance saying it is the State Hospital.

The new rule, which should take effect sometime in mid-August, says that anyone bringing a gun into the 325-acre facility must either lock the gun out of sight in the vehicle or carry it directly into the administration building where it will be locked up during the visit.

This is the second time State Hospital officials have appeared before the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee. The committee reviews selected rules made or suggested by the executive branch of government and during the general session sponsors legislation to modify or repeal unwanted rules.

A little over two years ago, then-Public Safety Commissioner Doug Bodrero started the debate by appearing before another legislative study committee to say he saw conflict in state law: An education statute talked about banning all weapons from school grounds while the concealed weapons statute talks about properly permitted citizens being able to carry concealed weapons without restriction, except in specific areas, like jails, where all guns were banned.

In June 1996, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement saying that churches are sanctuaries and that no weapons, permitted or not, should be inside them.

And a year ago, Gov. Mike Leavitt's personnel department issued a rule saying state workers, unless specifically authorized by superiors, couldn't carry weapons - permitted or not - on state property or in state vehicles.

At times, different state employees have talked about challenging the state's personnel rule in court, saying it violates the concealed weapons statute. But so far no one has filed suit.