Nearly two-thirds of Utahns support a citizens initiative to ban concealed weapons in schools and churches, a coalition of educators and community leaders announced Wednesday.
Volunteers are now going door-to-door in each of Utah's counties soliciting signatures for the "Utah Safe to Learn-- Safe to Worship" Coalition, and in releasing their poll results coalition members said they have "balanced" support among Utahns -- Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural dwellers, Mormons and non-Mormons."The bottom line: This initiative has support across Utah, across the political spectrum," said William Nash, a coalition member who also heads Utahns Against Gun Violence. He added that the initiative addresses the concerns of both responsible gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
Coalition members, who have had some meetings with GOP legislative leaders over the past several months, said they are going ahead in gathering the 68,000 signatures needed to get their gun law on the November ballot as if the 2000 Legislature will not address their concerns. "This is just a different way to legislate," said Paula Plant, a member of the state PTA.
In the poll, 65 percent of voters favor the initiative while 24 percent are opposed and 11 percent are uncertain. (That support is slightly down from a July 1999 Deseret News poll that showed 78 percent support for an initiative that would ban guns from schools and churches.)
The coalition poll showed no significant difference between rural and urban voters and indicated support by 72 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported the measure by a margin of 70 percent "yes" to 21 percent "no."
The poll, conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group in Washington, D.C., was taken in October 1999 and solicited opinions from 504 "likely voters." The poll has a 4.5 percent margin of error. Its release now comes on the eve of the 2000 Legislature where gun-related bills will be heard, but coalition members said the timing, three months after the poll was completed, had nothing to do with the start of the session.
Stephen Hutchinson, a chancellor and attorney for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, is a coalition member and has worked hard on the initiative.
"People have said in lots of ways they want to feel safe in churches, which are historically safe havens from violence and implements of violence," Hutchinson said. "This poll supports that with numbers that show Utahns agree with that."
Elwood Powell, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, the pro-2nd Amendment rights group that is an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said he doesn't believe the poll or that it accurately represents Utahns views.
"This PTA initiative won't do one single thing to make schools safer. Not one. And yet these same schools, the teachers, administrators, have done nothing, which they could now, to make schools safer -- not one program, not one measure," he said. "And you could fill a page with things they could do, from metal detectors to more guards and so on."
Certainly, residents need to be better educated on the issue, Powell said. He added he wasn't at liberty to say if his council or others would form a Political Initiative Committee to raise money to oppose the citizen initiative.
Further restrictions on concealed weapon permit holders are not warranted, Powell said.
Simply put, if there is a problem, and in most cases there is not, then there are already enough laws on the books to deal with the problem, Powell said, adding that the laws just aren't being enforced.
Powell's council has sent out Government Access and Management Act requests to all 40 Utah school districts asking if they have ever had an incident involving a gun brought on to school grounds by a concealed weapons permit holder.
"Thirty have responded so far and there has not been a single, solitary incident. And beyond that, the schools don't think there will be an incident. These permit holders are the most law-abiding citizens we have."
Although Gov. Mike Leavitt has repeatedly called for action on this subject and supported a special session of the Utah State Legislature to address the guns in schools issue last fall, the Republican-dominated group of lawmakers refused a special session. GOP leaders now say a group of crime and gun bills will be addressed early in the 2000 Legislature, although the guns-in-schools bills may not win approval
House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, will sponsor a bill to get guns out of all schools, public and private, lower grades and secondary.
His legislation would also change the presumption that a church must notify a concealed weapon permit holder that no guns are allowed in the church, Jones said.
"This is not radical stuff, this is common sense legislation that needs to pass," Jones said. "I can't imagine there would be anyone who would support the initiative but not my legislation. They are not identical, but very close in concept."