Gunfight, Utah-Style

By many indications, the gun-control cause would seem dead in America. Democrats, traditional champions of the cause, have been shrinking from the issue for fear that an anti-gun image would do them more harm than good at the polls. The gun lobby, whose membership and bank account grow bigger by the day, has successfully muscled through state legislatures laws that make it easier for people to buy and carry weapons. And the National Rifle Association certainly has a friend in U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who recently reversed the Department of Justice's long-standing position on the Second Amendment and now argues that American citizens have a constitutional right to own guns.

But a backfire in an unlikely place -- Utah -- suggests what can happen when the gun lobby overreaches. In this most Republican of states, where the Legislature has long been an errand boy for the NRA, conservative judges and the president of the state university are resisting new gun laws. At least one showdown is headed to court, and public opinion may be shifting.

In 1995, under pressure from the gun lobby, the Utah Legislature abolished a requirement that applicants must show good cause to receive a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Since then, the number of adults with gun permits has increased by as much as 30 times in some counties. In 1999, 30,000 people in Utah owned guns. Today, that number has grown to more than 42,000. In 1999, the Legislature passed a second law prohibiting any other state or local decision-making body from regulating firearms. The only institutions that can bar guns from their premises are mental-health agencies, law-enforcement and correctional facilities, the Olympic Public Safety Command (associated with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City), airports and bus terminals, houses of worship, courts, and elementary and secondary schools. If you have a concealed-weapon permit, however, you can legally bring your gun to school. And citizens may soon bring their guns into court, too.

This year, the gun lobby pushed for new laws that will relax even further the restrictions on where concealed weapons may be carried in Utah. One of its bills would have allowed people to carry firearms into Salt Lake City's Olympic venues. And although the Legislature did not oblige, it passed a bill that requires state judges to install gun lockers so that ordinary citizens can bring guns right into courthouses (but not courtrooms) -- a clever way to undermine the policy judges now enforce that makes courts gun-free. What's more, it also refused to grant the University of Utah the right to regulate arms on campus.

The chief sponsor of the gun-locker bill is Republican state Rep. John Swallow, who is running for Congress against Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson. Swallow argues that the lockers are intended to prevent people who carry concealed weapons from having to leave them locked in their cars where, he argues, they are in danger of being stolen. Republican Gov. Michael Leavitt has signed the bill into law.

While good for the gun lobby, these actions have blown up in the Legislature's face -- a signal that the gun-rights movement in Utah may have gone too far. Judge K.L. McIff, a gun owner appointed by Leavitt in 1994 to serve in the state's 6th District, is now leading his colleagues in a battle against the Legislature. The judges -- most of whom were appointed by Republican governors -- are refusing to comply with the law because they're afraid that angry or deranged plaintiffs, defendants or their friends may open fire if allowed to bring guns into courthouses. They're also furious that the Legislature is trying to rob them of their right to determine the level of security in their own workplaces.

In May, McIff wrote an order against the locker law, declaring it a violation of the constitutional separation of the judicial and legislative branches of state government, and explaining his safety concerns. "Even as I write, there is evidence of increasing resort to violence as a means of settling disputes within this country," McIff wrote. "Examples of retaliatory action within or adjacent to court facilities, while perhaps not commonplace, have appeared all too frequently in the news."

Allowing people to carry guns into courthouses, he added, "constitutes a profound threat to our effort to remain a civilized society." Other conservative gun owners have expressed sympathy for the judges' cause, including Gary DeLand, a former sheriff's deputy, who serves as executive director of the Utah Sheriffs' Association. "There's a lot of things going on in a courtroom that make people unsatisfied," said DeLand, an owner of a concealed-weapon permit who grew up watching his grandfather shoot dinner on the family ranch. "That someone could walk out agitated and pick up a gun has a lot of us quite worried."

Utah's legislators are none too pleased with the judicial opposition, and the attorney general has threatened to take the judges to court. In an attempt to sidestep a legal face-off, the Utah Judicial Council unanimously agreed in May to a 90-day suspension of court rules allowing courthouses to establish "secure areas" while discussion of a compromise proceeds. In doing so, the judges forfeited their right to charge people carrying concealed weapons into courthouses with felonies. The lockers have not been installed. A spokesman for the state attorney general says the legislators and judges are discussing the law, but he doesn't "know if a solution can be worked out."

Negotiating with the state legislature proved fruitless for University of Utah President J. Bernard Machen. His battle began last year, when the state attorney general issued an opinion that the university's campus-wide ban on guns, in place since 1977, was in violation of a state law barring institutions other than the Legislature from regulating firearms.

Since then, the university says, some students and employees have threatened to bring firearms onto the campus. Within days of the attorney general's opinion, one student wrote a letter to the local newspaper contending that the school's policy was illegal and urging students who own concealed weapons to carry them onto university property. A small group of law students has formed an organization called "Gun Rights Advocates," which contends that the university policy constitutes a violation of their right to bear arms. Meanwhile, at least one professor has threatened to quit if students begin bringing guns into classrooms.

Frustrated and determined to maintain the ban, Machen took his case to the statehouse this year only to have his plea fall on deaf ears. Not only were lawmakers unresponsive, some threatened to cut the university's budget by as much as 50 percent. So in March, Machen filed a lawsuit in federal court against the state attorney general, seeking to retain the university's right to regulate guns on campus.

The lawsuit was a last resort, says Fred Esplin, the school's vice president of university relations. "There's a growing disconnect between legislators and the public here," Esplin adds. "The people of this state are very conservative. But a number of them think that the gun lobby has overplayed its hand."