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Capitol sights in on guns

The Legislature is preparing for a showdown on a "guns-in-schools" issue most agree is a political, emotional subject that is not really at the root of gun violence.

The topic was the talk of Utah's Capitol Hill Wednesday, when the Legislature met in monthly interim meetings.Will the state pay for more counselors and police officers in the schools? Will lawmakers make it harder for the mentally ill and people with violent misdemeanor offenses to get guns? Should a person be able buy a weapon at a gun show without a background check?

These questions are on the table, but overshadowed by the bigger public policy dilemma: Should a person with a concealed weapon permit be allowed to carry on school grounds.

Senate President Lane Beattie said he is prepared to introduce a bill in an expected special session this fall that would allow private property owners and churches to ban all guns without having to post a "no guns allowed" sign.

But the West Bountiful Republican says the guns-in-schools issue "is a hoax, really."

"It's the emotional issue everyone is looking at," but it's not the most effective thing lawmakers can do in a special session to prevent gun violence, he said.

Concealed weapon permit holders had no role in fatal shootings at the Triad Center and the LDS Church's Family History Library earlier this year.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said Republican House members will discuss at a Wednesday caucus how to proceed on the gun issue.

In a flurry to address school violence issues after the April massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Gov. Mike Leavitt and GOP leaders in the Legislature each assigned committees to address the issues in Utah and suggest legislative solutions.

Democrats have long called for a multi-part plan to address school and community gun violence.

Last week, Leavitt issued a report from his committees, calling for changes in laws affecting gun access to the mentally ill and for people with violent misdemeanor charges. He also called for a ban on concealed weapons in schools.

As many as 50 bill files already have been opened on topics to be considered in a possible special session.

That's too many for one session, so Stephens suggests proposals be filtered through three legislative committees now studying gun violence.

"Then if a committee will vote out that issue or bill after a public hearing that's the way to go to get it before the House," Stephens said.

House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake City, doesn't object to having the three committees hear all the bills -- as long as the proposals get a fair hearing.

But it must be a fair hearing on all the bills. "What I object to is the arrogance of the majority party, and Speaker Stephens specifically, saying there must be 38 votes (a majority of the House) before a bill can be heard."

If the guns in schools issue is kept out of a special session, that will "protect legislators who are out-of-step with most of their constituents," he said.

Adding to the odd mix of guns and politics was a House Republican PAC fund raiser early Wednesday that brought in about $15,000. The National Rifle Association was present at the $250-a-plate breakfast, but GOP officials couldn't say how much the NRA donated.

Historically, the gun lobby does give to GOP candidates and causes in Utah.

While guns in schools is the hot topic among legislative heavy hitters, lawmakers are approaching school violence with a broader stroke -- and point out a need for additional money to tackle the problem.

Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, said the legislative Education Committee is more interested in long-range solutions.

Education, public safety, and human services officials Wednesday presented Frandsen's committee with recommendations on safe school policies and prevention and intervention programs. But guns-in-schools surfaced too.

Craig Deardon, commissioner of Utah's Department of Public Safety, said guns have no place in schools but added, "there are ways to improve what we have without taking guns away from everyone."

It's no secret that public and higher education and the PTA want lawmakers to ban weapons in schools, even those carried by legal permit holders.

On Tuesday, the Jordan Board of Education joined several other Utah school districts who have asked lawmakers to enact laws to prohibit all firearms on campuses except those carried by law enforcement officers.

But the gun ban is one piece of a larger goal to prevent school violence, says Steve Laing, state superintendent of public instruction.

"We've got to get the adult-to-student ratio much more in line so students are not lost within the system, that they don't feel anonymous," he said.

Other factors must also be considered, says Richard West, Utah State University special education professor addressing lawmakers on behalf of USU's School of the Future.

"The essence is, every child in school must feel welcome and successful in school. And we need to focus on needs of at-risk students," he said.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, proposed legislation to require all local school boards to implement emergency response plans, including prevention and intervention, and require annual certification in the plans.

Also on Tuesday, the State Board of Mental Health told lawmakers that a proposed rule banning guns from all mental health centers in Utah should go into effect July 1, following a 30-day public comment period.