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Gun debate at U. shifts legal venues

Those interested in carrying concealed weapons on the University of Utah's campus, or preventing on-campus weapons altogether, must wait a little longer to do either with clear legal backing.

U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball on Thursday tossed out several claims in a federal lawsuit regarding guns on campus, saying the issues must be decided by a state court judge.

The university likely will follow Kimball's directive to file its claims — most importantly, that the university has the right to set its own firearms policies even when those policies run contrary to state law — in state court within 60 days.

"We certainly want to have this issue resolved definitively in the courts, and he's suggested the way," said Fred Esplin, vice president for university relations. "In the meantime, our policy is in effect, and we're pleased that, at least for the time being, there won't be guns in the classroom."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, the defendant in the case, sees things a little differently.

"I'm on the record as saying what I believe the law is, and that they are in violation of the law," he said.

Still, Shurtleff said he will allow the case to play out in the courts and not take any action against the university for flouting the state's concealed weapons law.

That law, along with one that gives the Legislature the sole authority to enact gun laws in Utah, is at the heart of the year-old case.

The matter reached a boiling point during the 2002 legislative session, shortly after Shurtleff noted in a November 2001 opinion that the university was in violation of state law by enforcing a total gun ban on campus.

The policy applies only to students, faculty and staff. It does not affect visitors to the school.

U. president Bernie Machen stood by the 25-year-old internal policy, claiming the university has the right to do what is necessary to provide the best protection for an academic forum free from the potential threat of weapons.

In turn, pro-gun legislators tried to pressure the U. to change by threatening to cut in half the administrative budgets of any state entity not in compliance with the state gun-permit law. The bill was defeated in the House of Representatives.

Though not formally coming down on either side of what he described as a "hotly contested and emotionally charged issue," Kimball's 39-page ruling appears to lean heavily in favor of prohibiting weapons on the university grounds.

The judge notes the U.'s policy enjoys widespread support on its own campus, as well as throughout the academic community, including nearly every college and university in the state.