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A day after an embattled feminist media critic canceled a university lecture when she learned handguns would be allowed in the room despite death threats, a state lawmaker said he believes firearms should be even more prominent on Utah campuses.
Rep. Curt Oda says he wants to reinforce Utah law allowing open carrying of guns at the state's colleges and universities.
Oda says he's just asking for clarification of the existing concealed-weapons law at the request of an unidentified institution of higher education. The Clearfield Republican maintains there is nothing that bars open carrying on campuses right now.
On the same day when the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were searching for the anonymous emailer who threatened a mass shooting if gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian spoke at Utah State University, Oda said the video blogger didn't need to cancel her speech and leave town.
"She's overreacting," he said Wednesday.
Sarkeesian, who said she received three separate death threats in connection to the USU engagement, called claims of her overreaction "insulting" and "sexist."
"It's baffling to me that someone would claim I'm overreacting when there's a legitimate, credible threat against my life and against the other students," Sarkeesian said on a phone interview from San Francisco. "It's reminiscent of the larger culture, where women are told we 'shouldn't take it seriously. It's just the Internet. It's not real.' It's very real."
By claiming she overreacted, Sarkeesian said, critics are "trying to paint me as an overly emotional, reactionary feminist."
Oda noted USU had tweaked security procedures and lined up additional staff in advance of Sarkeesian's speech. But he believes the vast majority of concealed-weapon permit carriers are trustworthy.
"There's always gonna be bad guys," he said. "Why put the good guys at a disadvantage?"
To the suggestion that "good guys" could handily prevent all violence in an attempted mass shooting, Sarkeesian said: "No. Just no."
Oda has pressed to allow gun owners to carry their weapons openly on Utah's college campuses. He told members of the Law Enforcement Committee on Wednesday that a 2004 state mandate blocks state colleges and universities from regulating guns.
Utah is the only state to explicitly block higher-education leaders from setting restrictions on gun carriers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
USU officials pointed to state law in explaining why guns could not be screened at Sarkeesian's lecture, which had been scheduled for Wednesday. The writer of one threat claimed to have "a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs."
Sarkeesian said she requested metal detectors or pat-downs at the entrances to the Taggart Student Center auditorium and, while trying to negotiate options, suggested that people found to be carrying guns could be asked to show their permits though she said Wednesday night that "in hindsight, I don't think I'd feel comfortable with any weapons in the auditorium."
USU police told her no restrictions could be made, offering instead to require a backpack check-in at the door, Sarkeesian said.
But some state colleges in recent years have cited people for visibly carrying a gun, arguing that other state laws give them such authority.
Oda told fellow lawmakers that campus officers have overstepped their authority in issuing citations for disorderly conduct or other offenses.
"What they're saying is, 'Look, we're not going to allow guns' " out in the open, he said.
He has a message for those schools: "You've got no authority."
Oda declined to highlight any campuses he believes are violating the statute.
His request for clarification comes about a year and a half after Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed a 2013 measure that would have allowed adults to pack a concealed weapon without having to get training, a background check and a permit.
Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, who sponsored the 2013 bill, declined to comment on Oda's initiative. "I'm retiring, so it really doesn't matter what I think," he said Wednesday.
Current state law requires those carrying a gun at state colleges to have a concealed-weapon permit, which ensures they have completed training.
The legislative panel was scheduled to discuss the law before Sarkeesian called off her lecture Tuesday evening. Oda said her decision did not deter him from bringing up the open-carrying idea on Utah campuses.
"If people are saying that I'm being insensitive, that's not my problem," he said. "That's their problem."
He rejected the notion that Utah law would turn away other high-profile speakers from university campuses.
"It's their prerogative. It's not up to me," he said. "If they want to stay away, they stay away. If they want to come in, they can come in."
Oda said he does not plan to introduce legislation to bolster the law. But he does want a legislative attorney to weigh in on existing statute.
There is no deadline for that review, but lawmakers hope to have a legal opinion by their next meeting in November.
Wednesday's meeting follows years of tension between state legislators and educators.
In 2011, then-University of Utah President Michael Young argued the open display of firearms on campus could hurt the U.'s efforts to attract top professors.
The issue drew attention when two campus police officers released their protocol asking anyone openly carrying a weapon on campus to conceal it or leave. The officers were on paid leave for a time but later were reinstated.
Guns-rights activists took aim at the guidelines, saying Utah colleges have no right to ban open carrying.
The 2004 law prohibits public universities from enacting a policy that "in any way inhibits or restricts the possession or use of firearms."
U. officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Nationally, such debates strike a nerve in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and an earlier massacre at Virginia Tech.
Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, who has brought a handful of measures to curb violence against women, said she needed to look into the issue more, but thought some clarity would be wise.
Seelig added she wasn't sure whether USU should have banned guns during the talk.
But, she said, "Just because a coward threatened violence, doesn't mean that we should be silenced."
firstname.lastname@example.org About Utah's campus gun laws
Q • Why do Utah's higher-education campuses have to allow guns?
A • It's part of the same law that emphasizes that the Legislature regulates guns, not schools, districts or colleges. In 2006, the Utah Supreme Court ruled the University of Utah cannot ban concealed weapons on campus. Afterward, the U. dismissed a federal lawsuit. "Current university policy on guns is the same as state law," John Morris, a U. attorney, wrote in an email. "Students in residence halls may request a roommate who does not have a permit to carry a concealed weapon."
Q • Can private colleges ban weapons?
A • Yes. Brigham Young University in Provo and Westminster College in Salt Lake City both ban firearms on campus. Police protocol for handling guns on campus differs from case to case, representatives for the colleges said Wednesday.