University of Utah Can't Ban Firearms on Campus

Despite the recent gun violence on college campuses, the Utah Supreme Court decided this month to rule against an effort by the Univeristy of Utah's to make gun restrictions tougher.

Last week, a man opened fire in the cafeteria at Dawson College, located in downtown Montreal and killed one woman while injuring at least nineteen others. This week five basketball players of Duquense University were shot after a party. Both shootings came within days of a Utah Supreme Court decision rejecting the University of Utah's campus ban of firearms.

The university has had the ban on guns for several decades believing it necessary to keep a safe environment for students to learn.

However, in 2004 amendments to a Utah law were made to include institutions of higher learning with the local or state entities already prohibited from instituting their own gun bans.

The law stated that no other agency beside the state could impose individual policies that restrict the possession and use of firearms on public or private property. Therefore, the University of Utah's campus ban of firearms was in violation of state law.

The court in a 4-1 decision sided with this law and rejected the university claim that it had autonomous power to impose its own gun ban in order to make the college environment safer.

The decision came just days before shootings at the colleges in Montreal and Pittsburgh.

The incidents seemed to highlight the University of Utah's concern and view that a ban of guns on campus is necessary.

University Wanted Total Gun Ban, Law States Otherwise

The University of Utah's main sticking point was to ban all faculty, staff and students from carrying guns on campus.

Under Utah law guns could be banned on campus with the exception of individuals aged 21 and over that could apply for a concealed weapon permit.

The university sought to include these permit holders in the ban to cover all that was not already included by the law already but under Utah law such permit holders were allowed to carry guns onto the campus.

Michael Young, the university's president, said in an interview reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education "the moment somebody pulls a six-shooter out, it will have a chilling effect."

Mr. Young added that the gun ban was in place to prevent an environment of intimidation from developing and allow students to continue speaking freely in classes. Without a complete ban, students may worry spoken opinions might incense fellow volatile colleagues who carried guns or as Mr. Young pointed out a student may not feel comfortable to speak his mind if he/she thinks a classmate is carrying a gun.

Mr. Young also said that young students entering college have varying degrees of maturity and are put in intellectual and social situations they have never encountered before. "In that volatile mix, you want to introduce real ideas, and you want those ideas debated and thought about. But you also want to eliminate any kind of physical intimidation."

Mr. Young said that the university thought it was in its rights to take necessary steps to secure the safety of the educational environment needed at a university "where students and faculty can do their work without a threat to their safety and well-being."

Safe Places for Discourse ... Under the Law

Anthony Rotella, a student of the New York Institute of Technology in Long Island, believed that the school was in its right to ban even those students with a concealed weapons permit because otherwise "students are left in a state of fear about guns where they shouldn't be … in a classroom."

Sharing this sentiment was the Court's Chief Justice, Christine Durham, who was the lone dissenter believing the university's interests of safety in this case outweighed its violation of instituting restrictions of firearms.

Justice Durham sided with the university and wrote "the university's academic interests must be weighed against individual constitutional rights where these rights are properly invoked" and that "a policy that prohibited students and employees from openly brandishing firearms in classrooms would clearly be legitimate."

Justice Durham continued in her opinion "that a no-weapons-on-campus policy is necessary to the educational enterprise" and therefore it can be concluded, "the university's policies governing students, faculty and staff are within its authority to govern academic affairs."

Yet the Utah State Supreme Court disagreed with the position of the school. The ruling of the State Supreme Court stated that "the university's claim is unsupported by the text of our state's constitution" and that "the university is subject to Utah law prohibiting it from enacting or enforcing any policy restricting the possession or use of firearms."

Justice Jill N. Parrish wrote in the ruling that the law prohibiting any entity from imposing gun bans "dramatically altered the legal landscape, rendering it clear that Utah's firearms statutes are universally applicable, rather than merely criminal in nature, as the district court had concluded, and that the university's firearms policy does, in fact, violate Utah law."

Chuck Keeley, a student at Fordham University in New York, agreed with the Court. "The state university cannot enact a rule exempting itself from state law, which specifically prohibits it from banning firearms," he said, "the state university has no such right." And under the current law in Utah, the Court's and Mr. Keeley's interpretation are correct.

The opposing views on the issue between the school and the court came down to who had the legal right to institute such gun restrictions.

Ultimately, Mr. Young said, the state was saying with this decision that when it came to gun legislation, "we make the rules, not you."

The issue is in the process of hopefully being resolved. Mr. Young said the university has a federal claim pending but it is on hold while the institution dialogues with the state to see if a compromise can be reached.

Mr. Young added that the complete ban was more to make a statement of creating a safe environment than actually strictly enforcing it. He said situations like Montreal and Pittsburgh differed because anyone intent on using a gun will short of installing metal detectors which also effectively detracts from the feeling of freedom on campus, a goal of the gun ban.

The full ruling of the Utah Supreme Court can be seen here: