A Utah gun-rights group is asking its members to pressure state officials to consider only University of Utah presidential candidates who have an expansive view of citizens' rights to arm themselves on campus.
An action alert emailed Sunday to members of Gun Owners of Utah, or GOUtah, claims that under the leadership of former President Michael Young, the U. has "harassed" and "targeted" gun owners exercising their right of self-defense in violation of state law. The group's leadership hopes Young's successor will overturn a campus ban on openly displaying guns.
"The best thing, of course, would be to nominate a president who actually believes in the Second Amendment and who personally owns guns and enjoys shooting. But such people are quite rare in the 'politically correct' realm of modern academia," the group's email said. "However, we believe there may be a few brave souls in the academic world who at least have enough respect for the law that they'd be willing to make sure the U. complies with it and would refrain from harassing gun owners in the future."
Few U.S. campuses allow guns, concealed or otherwise, and no major public university allows open carry. Utah law is ambiguous on the open-carry issue, enabling both sides to argue they are right while taking opposite positions.
U. officials deny that any lawfully armed citizen has been harassed, although campus police have occasionally responded to reports that a weapon was inadvertently displayed.
The U.'s current policy, crafted after years of confrontation with gun-rights advocates and legal wrangling with the state, allows concealed-permit holders to bring firearms on campus as long as they remain concealed. If someone reports seeing a gun, a police officer investigates to determine whether the armed person has the proper permits. If the person does hold a permit but declines to keep the weapon concealed, police will force him or her to leave campus.
"There have been no occurrences that I know of," said U. Police Chief Scott Folsom. "The university policy is very clear to support state law."
A committee led by the State Board of Regents is soliciting public comment and candidate nominations, and recently wrapped up a series of 11 meetings with campus constituent groups. The GOUtah alert is asking its members to flood the committee with a form letter denouncing the U. policy. The search group will choose three to five finalists to forward to Regents, who will select a new leader to start by next summer.
Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg said gun policies are "fair game" in the presidential search but was surprised the issue was resurfacing now, long after Young brokered an accord with gun-rights supporters in the Legislature.
"It's definitely safe to say the Regents are supportive of the university's policy," Sederburg said. "We thought the issue was resolved nicely last year."
In an interview last year before departing for the University of Washington, Young stressed that the U. had no intention of singling out lawfully armed people or even tracking who holds concealed-carry permits. But open display of firearms poses a menace to public safety and creates an environment that is not conducive to academic pursuits, officials say.
GOUtah policy director Charles Hardy and other advocates claim state law prohibits the U. from imposing gun restrictions of any kind, including banning open-carry on campus. In the alert sent Sunday, GOUtah alleges the current U. policy which retreats from the anti-gun stance of Young's predecessor, Bernie Machen still insults constitutional guarantees to bear arms, as well as state law.
Hardy did not respond to an email request for comment.
Another gun-rights organization, the Utah Shooting Sports Council, likely will join GOUtah, according to group chairman Clark Aposhian.
"There are many components to choosing a university president, but we would hope that the university would be thought of as an example of obeying the law rather that trying to find ways around it," Aposhian said. "We would certainly oppose a continuation of the status quo. We believe [U. administrators] are reaching, try to find some ancillary law to cover what their view of the law is. We believe it has an ideological bent rather than enhancing student safety."
The GOUtah alert's sample letter insists that the U.'s next president "fully complies with state laws governing the possession and carrying of firearms on campus, instead of unilaterally making up illegal rules and policies and harassing law-abiding citizens."
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I The University of Utah's presidential search committee invites public comment. Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about the search process, visit bit.ly/mRReTn.