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Town’s gun law called illegal

Shurtleff says Virgin can’t require firearm ownership

SHARE Town’s gun law called illegal

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has weighed into another Washington County town's controversial laws.

Last time it was La Verkin over its condemnation of the United Nations and those who support it. This time, he has sent a letter to the mayor of Virgin saying the council can't require every town resident to have a gun.

"Only the Legislature can pass gun-control legislation," Shurtleff said Tuesday. Shurtleff said he has also spoken to Virgin Mayor Jay Lee, telling him "that the ordinance is against state law." Shurtleff said the council must either repeal the ordinance or pass one that only deals with the discharge of a weapon within town limits.

Lee said his town would take another look at its controversial gun ordinance now that Shurtleff believes it violates state law.

"We'll do something, but I'm not sure what it is yet," Lee said Tuesday morning. "There's no enforcement to our ordinance. There's nothing to enforce anyway. I think this is purely political. We're not in any way attempting to regulate firearms in Virgin. This ordinance doesn't hurt anybody."

Lee said he received the attorney general's letter in Tuesday's mail.

"I'm not sure what we'll do next, but whatever we do we'll probably get Mark Shurtleff's blessing first," he added. "There's some on the council who say we need to repeal it and some who say we need to fight for it. I just think it's no big deal."

Several years ago Salt Lake City officials attempted to pass a gun-control ordinance that was more restrictive than state law. Conservatives in the Legislature responded by passing a statute that said only the Legislature could control the use of guns in Utah.

Lee said the gun ordinance is part of a more comprehensive civil-defense ordinance passed earlier by the City Council.

"We think the Second Amendment is important. I'll let our attorney look at the letter and give us an opinion before we decide what to do," Lee said. "It's not a big issue for us."

Shurtleff said it's clear to him that a local town passing a law requiring gun ownership — instead of passing one that limited gun use — still is an attempt to control weapons. And local governments can do that only with strict limits, he said.

This is the second time that Shurtleff, who considers himself a Second Amendment defender and a conservative — has told a southern Utah town that its ordinances are out of line. Two months ago Shurtleff traveled to La Verkin to tell town officials to change an ordinance they passed condemning the United States' participation in the United Nations and requiring town residents who support the U.N. to state so publicly.

"They drastically changed their ordinance. Now it says the U.N. flag won't be flown from city flagpoles and those kinds of things, which are legal" and don't violate a citizen's right to free speech, he said.

Shurtleff said he has no plans to visit Lee or the Virgin Town Council to tell them what to do. But if they ask, he'll respond.

The ordinance, passed in 2000 in an attempt to fight crime and show support for Second Amendment rights, says every resident must have a gun in his home, with a few exceptions.

Officials in other Utah towns are considering similar must-pack-a-gun ordinances, and Shurtleff said he hopes those officials will learn of his concerns and not pass ordinances like Virgin's.

Shurtleff said he "looked into the matter, did some research" after Rep. Scott Daniels, D-Salt Lake, a former 3rd District judge, informed him that he believed the Virgin law was illegal.

What will Shurtleff do if Virgin ignores his warning?

"That's a good question. We're limited. I suppose we could go to court and seek a declaratory judgment" against the town showing the ordinance illegal and unenforceable. "But I hope that won't be necessary."

Virgin Council member Ken Cornelius, who cast the sole vote against the ordinance, told the local newspaper, The Spectrum, that he had told other council members he did not think the ordinance was legal.

Cornelius said he also did not want the town passing an ordinance that could not be enforced.

In an interview earlier this year with The Spectrum, Lee said he had given dozens of interviews to national and international media and officials concerning the ordinance and had received hundreds of letters, nearly all of them supportive of the law.

He said most of the town's 394 residents already owned guns, and the ordinance did not result from any crime problem.

The ordinance, similar to one passed in Kennesaw, Ga., in 1982, provides exemptions from gun ownership for those with physical or mental disabilities, criminal convictions, philosophical objections or financial inability to buy a gun.

But Shurtleff said it's pretty clear that only the Legislature can pass gun-control laws of any kind, regardless of the good intentions of the town officials.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

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