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'Gun duel' may pit GOP vs. GOP

A battle is shaping up in the Utah Legislature over guns in schools and other hair-trigger political matters concerning gun-rights advocates.

And oddly enough it may be Republican against Republican instead of the traditional Republican against Democrat battle over guns.That intraparty fight surfaced Saturday during the state Republican Party Convention as GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt was jeered from the audience when he talked about guns in schools.

GOP legislators tell the Deseret News that, unless minds change, conservatives in the House don't want to take up the matter of restricting guns in schools during a special session that Leavitt says he'll call this fall.

Republican House leaders say they will take the issue to their June interim day caucus to get consensus on how to deal with the guns-in-school and any other hot-button gun debates in the special session.

Leavitt said Monday that by week's end he'll make formal recommendations to GOP legislative leaders on what he thinks should be done "in the short term and long term" about gun violence and school safety.

He declined to say if he'll recommend banning concealed weapons from schools but added "I have some interesting thoughts on that" which will be included in his recommendations. "As you know I'm concerned" about guns in schools, Leavitt said.

"I support Second Amendment rights. But we must be the party of the majority, not the extreme. And there are some extreme views" on guns and gun rights, Leavitt said.

And the governor may have found an ally in Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful.

Republicans hold just a four-seat majority in the 29-member Senate, and in "tense" meetings between GOP Senate and House leaders and Leavitt over the past two months it's clear that Beattie and Leavitt worry that Republicans may lose seats to Democrats in the 2000 and 2002 elections, sources said.

"They think they could lose the Senate -- I disagree, but they're serious about it," one legislative Republican said Monday.

Polls examined by GOP leaders show Republicans may have been outmaneuvered on the gun and tobacco settlement money issues by Democrats, sources said.

The tobacco settlement will be part of the fall special session, Leavitt reiterated Monday. "And in the end, because the settlement is so much money (nearly $1 billion for Utah), I think it, not guns, will be the major issue of the special session," Leavitt said Monday.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, says that unless he's overruled by 38 votes from the House floor, he won't allow any bill that further restricts people's right to bear arms to be heard in the special session. (If he gets the backing of the 49-member House Republican caucus, he has no worries.)

"We'll be pushing for the House not to consider anything that doesn't come out of the (legislative) committee reports," said another House leader Monday.

Those are joint House and Senate committees, and for a measure to pass out of an interim committee it must have a majority vote from both the House and the Senate members. So if GOP House members vote as a bloc, they can kill any recommendation.

"If the governor wants to do something beyond what the committees recommend, he'll have his work cut out for him." Maybe after what happened (to him) at the state convention, he'll see" the depth of feeling of rank-and-file conservative Republicans on the gun issue and pull back some, this House Republican said.

Stephens declined to speculate on political realities in the Senate. But he said he'd like to have August or September public hearings on any gun/school safety bill that anyone wants to introduce in the special session. "There could be 50 or 60 bills introduced. How in the world are we supposed to deal with those in a (short) special session? (Late summer) hearings could be one way" of whittling down bills, Stephens said.

Leavitt said he will ask that both his short-term and long-term recommendations be appropriately considered by the three legislative committees now studying the issues. "And we'll see what they come up with," the governor said.

Several years ago Beattie, after what he called a number of private meetings with various interested groups, drafted a bill that would have banned concealed weapons from churches, private property and public schools. He killed the bill before a public hearing, saying it couldn't pass the House.

However, the president says that the bill is still drafted and could be available if need be for the special session. "I'm looking at it now and considering several modifications," Beattie said Monday.

Meanwhile, following published statements by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that guns and the mentally ill don't mix and guns don't belong in schools, Democrats have fired up the gun/school issue even more.

House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, who is running for Salt Lake mayor this fall, says he will introduce into the special session a bill similar to one he pushed unsuccessfully in the 1999 Legislature.

That bill was quickly killed after a House committee hearing; and it failed again when he tried to amend it into a GOP-sponsored gun bill on the House floor. Among other things, Jones' bill would have allowed school administrators to ban all guns from school grounds.

Stephens says that issue -- concealed weapons in schools -- has been heard "ad naseum" before and debating it again in the heat of a special session isn't wise or productive.

Beattie says that could be the case. But he says he doesn't understand jumping to such conclusions now.

"It's premature" to rule out what will or won't be heard in the special session, Beattie said Monday. Let the three legislative committees studying gun violence and school safety bring their reports in July, then measure support for various ideas over the rest of the summer.

"If there's not enough support for some item" for it to pass in the special session, then, yes, no need in debating it, Beattie said. For now, "we should look at all the options, keep them open."