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Shotgun News, July 10, 2004, p. 11

Concealed Carry on University Campuses

There is an interesting struggle going on between the University of Utah, and the Utah Legislature. The Utah Legislature thinks that the University of Utah is required to obey state law. The University of Utah knows better.

A few years back, Utah passed a non-discretionary concealed weapon permit law. While there were some places where a concealed weapon permit wasn't valid (jails, courthouses, secure areas of airports, posted private property), the law was silent about the University of Utah--quite definitely public property, neither a jail nor a place of judgment (though some students might beg to differ).

Since 1976, the University of Utah has prohibited carrying guns on campus--apparently in conflict with the new state law. In 2002, Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff expressed the opinion that the school was required to recognize state concealed weapon permits. The University is, after all, in Utah.

There are at least two questions here. Must the University of Utah obey state law? Is the University of Utah's policy a good idea? While I generally support concealed carry, I can at least understand the reasoning that has caused most states to prohibit concealed carry on college campuses. The argument is that college students, even those who are 21, and are otherwise eligible for a concealed handgun permit, are simply too irresponsible to be trusted with a gun. My daughter and soon-to-be future son-in-law, both students at the University of Idaho, and both pro-gun, make this argument--that alcohol, drug abuse, and general irresponsibility are so prevalent among college students that adding guns to the mix would be a serious mistake.

Whether these "no guns" policies on university campuses are a good idea or not, the question of whether a state university may ignore state law in this area would seem rather obvious.

The University of Utah sued in federal court, claiming that their right to free speech under the First Amendment was denied by allowing guns on campus. Huh? University of Utah President J. Bernard Machen explained it this way: "The essence of my position is that a college campus is unlike almost any other public area of our society.... It's a place where people come together and actually engage in the free expression of ideas, and many times strong emotions are expressed." Machen explained that he feared that students would be reluctant to express their true opinions for fear of being gunned down by another student.1

On the streets of most big American cities you see signs that say, "Bush Lied--Kids Died!" That's free expression of ideas, with very strong emotions. By Machen's reasonings, all concealed gun laws, because they might intimidate the paranoid from speaking, violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

A federal judge declined to make a ruling on the federal constitutional question until Utah's state courts decided whether Shurtleff's opinion was correct under the Utah Constitution. In August of 2003, Utah's 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder ruled for the university, taking the position that the state's law--which allows licensees to carry on almost all public property--is not in conflict with the university's ban on guns. The university's lawyer did admit, however, that their policy "applies only to staff, faculty and students...."2

So the Utah Legislature decided to make the concealed weapon law explicit: the University of Utah may not prohibit concealed carry on campus by those with valid permits. The University's response was swift: they denied that the Utah Legislature had any authority to tell the University what to do. (Attorney General Shurtleff agrees that private universities are free to ban guns on campus.)

What especially troubles me about the University of Utah's argument is the ignorance of their spokesman. "Utahns ‘sometimes think gun possession is a God-given right, not a constitutional right,' says Jake Garn, a university trustee and former U.S. senator, explaining the dispute."3 From the Utah Constitution's preamble: "Grateful to Almighty God for life and liberty, we, the people of Utah, in order to secure and perpetuate the principles of free government, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION." From Art. I, sec. 1 of the Utah Constitution's Bill of Rights: "All men have the inherent and inalienable right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties...."4 One of those rights, in Art. I, sec. 6 of the Utah Constitution's Bill of Rights: "The individual right of the people to keep and bear arms for security and defense of self, family, others, property, or the state, as well as for other lawful purposes shall not be infringed; but nothing herein shall prevent the Legislature from defining the lawful use of arms."

Where does this idea come from? From the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...." Jake Garn needs to spend a bit more time studying at the university, and a bit less time pretending to understand the notion of human rights.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

1 Ben Gose, "Dispute Over Guns at the University of Utah May Test Academic Freedom," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 20, 2002, available at, last accessed June 7, 2004.
2 Shinika A. Sykes and Kirsten Stewart, "Ruling backs gun ban at the U.," Salt Lake Tribune, August 30, 2003, available at, last accessed June 6, 2004.
3 June Kronholz, Wall Street Journal, "Utah orders university to allow gun-toting students," in Provo Daily Herald, May 25, 2004, available at, last accessed June 6, 2004.
4 Utah Constitution, available at, last accessed June 6, 2004.