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Posted: 6:49 PM- A bill quietly endorsed by a legislative committee would codify licensed concealed-weapons holders' ability to openly carry loaded guns in almost any publicly owned space in Utah, including university campuses, public schools, sports arenas and hospitals.
HB473 is sponsored by Curtis Oda, a Davis County Republican with a history of championing expanded gun rights and criticizing University of Utah policies he believes trampled those rights.
In recent years, U. officials have largely abandoned their opposition to concealed weapons on campus, but they have held firm on the "open carry" issue, contending current law requires that firearms allowed by concealed weapons permits must remain concealed if they are brought onto school grounds. They cite the potential disruption caused by public display of weapons.
"Universities are a small piece of this. It would permit anyone with a permit to carry that weapon openly anywhere in the state," said John Morris, the U.'s general counsel. "This appears very broad. It would actually have a dramatic impact."
U. officials did not get wind of Oda's bill until Friday and none attended Monday's meeting of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, which fell on the Presidents Day Holiday. The policy implications of open carry were not discussed by the committee, which advanced HB473 to the House floor with little comment just four days after a shooting rampage at Northern Illinois University left six dead, including the shooter.
"I'm not saying [open carry is] a great idea, I'm just saying it's not illegal," said gun-rights lobbyist Clark Aposhian. "This [legislation] is not creating new law. It's a definition of an existing ability permit holders already have."
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff spoke at the hearing, saying existing weapons laws can reasonably be read to both allow and prohibit open carry on school grounds.
"I'm not taking a side," Shurtleff said in an interview today. "You just can't have different agencies interpreting the law differently. It should be clarified so everyone reads it the same way."
Additional confusion exists as to whether an inadvertent display of a concealed weapon, such as could occur when an armed man opens his coat to reach for a phone or wallet, constitutes a violation of the law, Shurtleff added.
U. officials said they would comply with the legislation if it passed, but they hope lawmakers will think better of forcing schools to accommodate those who chose to openly carry firearms.
"It would be incredibly disruptive to the educational environment," said Fred Esplin, the U.'s vice president for institutional advancement. "The difficulty is that if someone shows up in a class, dormitory or library openly carrying a weapon, it's impossible to know their motives and intent.
"As an administrative matter, if someone openly carries a gun into a lecture hall with 300 students, you would not be able to ask him if he is licensed," Esplin continued. "The only recourse you have is to hope for the best or call the police. It's an untenable situation."
Aposhian ridiculed the U. position as worry-mongering and predicted the bill would have little effect on the number of people who openly display their weapons.
"The more [U. officials] wring their hands the more negative attention they bring to firearms," he said. "There are so few people at the U. who will openly carry. A student brings a gun into a lecture hall, it could happen, but it is likely they will be ostracized by their peers."
Oda was not available for comment.