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Leavitt to sign bill allowing guns in schools

Gov. Mike Leavitt will sign into law a guns-in-school bill passed by the 2003 Legislature, even though various education leaders have asked him to veto it.

Leavitt told the Deseret News editorial board Tuesday afternoon he will sign the bill because it clarifies ambiguous law that could lead to the state and school districts losing court challenges "to the already decided" issue of allowing legally permitted, law-abiding citizens to bring their concealed weapons into public schools.

The bill, SB108, also contains language that says churches can use methods other than signage to tell visitors and members they can't bring a gun to church.

"It allows for churches not to have to post a big sign on their door; it clarifies other forms of notice" that guns are not allowed, said Leavitt. And that also makes the bill worthy, he said.

A handful of education groups, however, believe the bill opens up new problems for school safety. Those groups, including the State Board of Education and Utah Education Association, have asked him to veto the measure.

"That comes as a surprise to me," state school board chairman Kim Burningham said in response to Leavitt's action.

Added UEA executive director Susan Kuziak: "I think at a time we're all focused on personal safety, the safety of kids ought to be on the top of the list. We strongly believe that any time you allow weapons in the schools and people might not know they're there, there may be an accident people just couldn't recover from."

Leavitt has not changed his stance on guns in schools. In fact, he reiterated his belief that such weapons should not be allowed into public schools and churches.

"I've paid some price" politically through criticism from Utah's gun-rights advocates, he said. But the bill "is nothing more than a restatement of the existing law."

Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, sponsor of SB108, said the issue was brought to him by local prosecutors, who worried two different sections in the code — one that allows concealed-carry permit holders to take their weapons into schools, another banning "dangerous materials" from schools — were contradictory.

It may be true, the governor admitted, that SB108 in effect takes away a legal opportunity for someone opposed to guns in schools to sue someone who brings a legally permitted weapon onto school grounds.

But Leavitt said as a public policy decision-maker, it is his job to make sure Utah has the clearest, most defendable laws on the books. And even though he personally doesn't agree with anyone carrying a gun into a public school, clarifying a "well-known" policy "set by the Legislature" is the appropriate thing for him to do.

He said some people have tried to drag the cloak of homeland security over the guns-in-schools issue. Leavitt sits on President Bush's homeland security task force and has traveled the states explaining to other governors and lawmakers what kind of homeland security is now needed.

But that cloak doesn't fit this issue, he said. The Utah Legislature has clearly said legally permitted concealed-carry individuals can take their guns onto school grounds and into schools, and "anyone at any time" can try to change lawmakers' minds. SB108 didn't attempt to do that, only to clarify current law, and he agrees with that goal, he said.

Leavitt said he has signed more than 200 of the 300-plus bills passed in the 45-day session. "And nothing very controversial" remains to be handled. He anticipates he may veto a few bills, as he has historically. He has until next Tuesday to sign, veto or allow bills to become law without his signature.

The governor said he anticipates an early-summer special session to take up the issue of selling the state's quasi-public Workers Compensation Fund, which serves as a market-of-last-resort for employers seeking to insure employees for work-related injuries. "We may end up selling it for $50 million," the original proposal. But if the Legislature does that, he wants to make sure lawmakers understand the complicated issue and that the policyholders — the state being one — get the best overall deal possible, he said.