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Machen stands pat on gun ban

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University of Utah President Bernie Machen says the U. has only three options to deal with lawmakers' insistence that a ban on legally permitted concealed weapons on the U. campus is illegal:

The U. could revoke its policy, it could work with lawmakers to pass a law exempting higher education campuses from the state's concealed-carry law, or colleges and universities could take the issue to court.

"We're not willing to look at the first option," Machen told the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee, which voted Monday to rescind internal policies banning guns from college campuses as an "illegal flouting" of state weapons laws.

The law says specifically only the Legislature can regulate how, when and where guns are carried.

Machen's no-guns-allowed stance was echoed by other administrators of Utah's nine colleges and universities, although several said they were not willing to sue the Legislature, which determines their annual funding, over the matter.

In the end, the committee voted to recommend repeal of several dozen state agency gun control policies ruled illegal by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff last fall. "We have no other choice," said House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West.

Repeal of the universities' gun control policies will come at the end of the 2002 Legislature when lawmakers routinely pass an omnibus bill that revokes administrative rules legislators don't like.

Given the pro-gun makeup of the Legislature, the chance of passing a new law extending a weapons ban to state universities and colleges is unlikely. That means the issue appears headed to court where taxpayers could ultimately end up paying for university attorneys on one hand and attorneys with the Utah Attorney General's Office defending the state law on the other.

Machen told lawmakers attorneys for the U. had given him a legal opinion in direct contrast with that issued by Shurtleff, but when pressed for a copy of that opinion Machen said it hadn't been written down.

Committee members repeatedly grilled Machen to identify his legal authority for banning guns on the U. campus, but Machen wouldn't or couldn't respond.

"I'm a little confused about rules and policy and law," he said, responding to lawmakers' questions only with a prepared speech about how guns had been banned on campus for 30 years, how they were inappropriate in a learning environment and how public opinion polls support the ban.

Utah State University attorney Craig Simper quoted a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision on academic freedom and First Amendment free speech, saying the U.S. Constitution trumps any state gun law a legislature may pass.

Legislators then asked Shurtleff if he'd reviewed that decision. "Yes, and it doesn't apply here," Shurtleff said.

But five years ago, lawmakers passed one of the loosest concealed-carry laws in the country, and they exempted only a handful of institutions from the law, including state mental facilities, prisons, airports, courts and Olympic facilities. Public schools and universities were not exempted from the law, which superseded any and all policies on state campuses.

"The essence, the very heart, of a college experience is the free exchange of ideas in a nurturing environment," Machen said. "Students who are being introduced to new concepts, who are grappling to understand new ideas, must feel they can openly express their views and question those ideas in a safe setting. Neither students nor faculty should have that debate diminished by concern over who has a gun in his backpack."

Machen also warned that revoking the U. policy would reinforce negative stereotypes of Utah.

But lawmakers were not swayed by the emotional argument.

"You missed the question," said Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "What is your authority (to impose a ban)?"

Machen bristled when several lawmakers suggested the U. was flouting state law.

"I'm not here to advocate defying the Legislature," he said. "The Legislature is here to represent the will of the people. Serve the people and let us keep doing what we have been doing for 30 years."

Shurtleff repeated Monday that by law only the Legislature can set gun policy, so all of the universities' gun control policies are void and illegal.

"There may be some cases" where specific university gun policies — like Weber State University's ban on guns in "secure" areas where student disciplinary actions are heard — are appropriate, said Stephens. But in those instances, the Legislature must specifically ban guns in those areas. The schools don't have to power to do so, he said.

Sarah Thompson of Utah Gun Owners Alliance said it is "chilling" that the leaders of Utah's colleges and universities "have been practicing lawlessness" for at least five years — since the new concealed-carry law was passed.

She said flouting the law, rather than seeking a change in the law, "bodes poorly for student behavior" when they see their college leaders act in this way, she said.

The issue of gun rights is an emotional one. Earlier in the day, former Clinton administration official and U.S. Senate candidate Pat Shea and gun-rights advocate John Spangler got into a pushing match after Shea and Spangler exchanged verbal insults. Spangler reported the incident to Capitol police and asked for an investigation.

Sgt. Kevin Rhoades with the Utah Highway Patrol, which handles Capitol security, said the incident is still under investigation and officers are waiting for additional witness statements expected Tuesday before deciding what further action to take.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com