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Nearly six out of 10 Utahns believe teachers should be allowed to pack firearms in the classroom and more than half oppose stricter gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at a Connecticut school, according to a new survey.
Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed strongly favor allowing teachers and other full-time school personnel to carry a firearm while at school. Twenty percent somewhat support armed teachers. A total of thirty-eight percent opposed teachers packing heat.
"I'm astonished that a high percentage of residents of our state think that's a good idea," said Steve Gunn, an attorney with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.
"I just don't think it's a good idea to have a teacher, who is not as well-trained as a police officer, using a gun to try to protect themselves or anybody else. I think the likelihood of something bad happening … is very high," Gunn said.
But Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, who has organized concealed weapons courses for hundreds of teachers, said he was surprised the number supporting teachers' right to carry a firearm wasn't higher.
"The only thing I can make from it is people don't quite understand" the background checks a permittee has to go through to obtain and keep a concealed-weapons permit, he said. "If they knew that, I think the answers would be vastly different."
The poll, designed to look at issues in the upcoming legislative session, was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and commissioned by The Exoro Group, a policy consulting firm.
Seventy percent of Utahns said education is the most important issue legislators will deal with and 55 percent of respondents said they would support an income tax increase if it helped Utah schools, which receive the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation. The survey also found little support for keeping Utah's unique system of using delegates selected at neighborhood caucuses to choose nominees for political offices.
On gun issues, the survey found that, while there was support for arming teachers, 82 percent of respondents said parents should have a right to know if their child's teacher will be carrying a firearm.
Gunn called that a "glimmer of hope" that would allow parents to decide if they want their child in the class.
"If I were a parent of a school-age child, I would be outraged if my child's teacher was carrying a gun on his hip or in his pantleg while he's in front of the class," Gunn said.
But Aposhian said pulling a student out of class because the teacher is carrying a gun is not a sensible response.
"That's a knee-jerk reaction and typically it's not necessary and not appropriate," he said. "We know from previous experience that the information would be used to demonize and target those teachers who are among the most knowledgeable on the use of force, the most law-abiding."
The poll found that the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., had done little to change minds about gun control. Three-fourths of respondents said the shooting had no effect on their views on gun control. About 12 percent said they favor stricter gun laws after the shooting.
Overall, 54 percent of Utahns do not support stricter gun laws.
The poll found that just one in five of those surveyed support keeping Utah's current system of letting delegates chosen at neighborhood caucuses nominate candidates for office.
In 2011, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and his colleagues considered trying to put a measure on the ballot that would change Utah law and give candidates an alternate path to the nomination, circumventing the caucuses, but they shelved the idea saying they didn't have time to gather the necessary signatures.
LaVarr Webb, a former top aide to Leavitt and consultant with Exoro, which conducted the poll, was involved in that effort.
Leavitt said Wednesday that his group is waiting to see what, if anything, the Legislature does to address the nominating process, but there have been discussions of what to do if lawmakers fail to act.
Leavitt said that, while he benefitted from the caucus process when he successfully ran for governor three times, it is probably time for a change. He said that decades ago, politics was concentrated at the local level, but today people engage in the process differently and, if the process doesn't change, people will feel excluded and voter participation will continue to fall.
Former Utah County Republican Party Secretary Jeremy Roberts had also planned to launch an initiative drive earlier this month aimed at changing the caucus system, with an eye toward putting it on the 2014 ballot. Those plans are on hold, likely until early Spring.
The poll found that 20 percent of respondents want to keep the current system as-is; 28 percent favor maintaining the caucus and convention system, but providing an alternative route for candidates to get on the ballot; and 47 percent support eliminating the caucus-convention system entirely and going to a direct primary.
The survey also found widespread support for increased funding for public schools, even if that means a statewide income tax increase.
Seventy percent of respondents said education was the most important issue for lawmakers to deal with in the upcoming legislative session and 55 percent either strongly supported or somewhat supported an income tax increase to fund education.
Half of those surveyed support raising the sales tax on food and offsetting the additional burden to low-income families with a refundable tax credit. Forty-five percent opposed that measure.
Fifty-four percent support an increase in the general sales tax if the money goes to fund state services, and 47 percent favor a gas tax increase to fund transportation projects.