Who’s Packing? 

Will Utah’s new gun law make schools -- and the rest of us -- safer?

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Jim Bunger made a mistake.


Late on the night of April 24, 2002, Bunger put on a jacket and walked his chocolate lab to nearby Mill Creek Elementary School, an old tennis ball in hand ready for a session of midnight go-fetch. Bunger, 58, a concealed weapons permit holder for the last eight years, put a loaded Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver in his jacket pocket before leaving home.


Unknown to him, sometime during the 20 minutes he was at the school, the gun slipped from his pocket.


The next morning during recess, for sixth-graders found the weapon on the grass, still in its light-brown holster. It was a terrible, terrible mistake, Bunger says, recalling the incident more than a year later. Luckily, nobody was hurt and the kids who found the gun had been taught how to handle firearms. Or so he thought.


“I don’t like to talk about ‘What ifs?’,” he adds.


But the incident—not an isolated one—exemplifies the law of unintended consequence as it applies to the Utah Legislature’s ideas about the U.S. Constitution. The majority of legislators not only believe the Second Amendment guarantees the right to take a concealed weapon onto school grounds, but that children will be safer if people do.


During the 2003 Legislative Session, Utah lawmakers made it legal for concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns in public schools. During the debate, pro-gun legislators argued that students would be safer because people bent on violence would be deterred by knowing someone else might be carrying a weapon. Now, school officials and others are looking for ways to comply with the law without increasing the risk of incidences like Bunger’s on school property.


Lt. Todd Rasmussen of the Granite District Police Department was assigned to investigate Bunger’s bungle. Charges of reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor carrying maximum penalties of a $5,000 fine and a one year jail term, were considered, but the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges, claiming insufficient evidence.


As a result, the issue was never brought to the attention of the Bureau of Criminal Identification’s committee that could have revoked Bunger’s concealed weapon permit.


“It is obvious this was an accident. Accidents will happen. It’s just human nature,” Rasmussen says. However, he believes because of the severity of what could have happened, Bunger should have lost his permit privilege.


“Guns in, near and around schools is a subject that scares me, because I know about the element of human error,” he says. And it’s error and mistakes he has seen in 23 years of law enforcement that lead him to believe guns don’t belong in schools and churches any more than they belong in airports, prisons or courtrooms.


“Every time a gun is involved, there are so many more things that could go wrong,” he says, citing a Davis County incident as an example of the elevated risks of firearms.


On June 26, an Ogden man stole four tires from a Layton store and escaped, making his way to the interstate. The storeowner, a concealed weapons permit holder, followed until the Ogden man pulled off the freeway in Kaysville. The storeowner brandished his weapon in an attempted to detain the suspect, who then attacked the owner. During the struggle, the gun was knocked loose. A UHP trooper came on the scene and secured the loose firearm and tried to break up the fight before the suspect fled again.


“That gun could have easily been used against the person who thought he was defending himself with it,” Rasmussen says. “Can you imagine what might happen if there is a similar incident in one of Utah’s schools?”


Before the law was changed a few months ago, state gun laws were unclear. Two statutes conflicted: One law said permit holders had no restrictions, while another banned dangerous materials—sometimes interpreted to include guns—on school grounds.


Senate Majority Leader Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, sponsored a bill to remove the second clause allowing permit holders to carry guns in schools. Without the permit, it’s a class B misdemeanor to go pistol-packin’ in a school. Sen. Patrice Arent, D-Cottonwood Heights, tried unsuccessfully to substitute the bill to prohibit all guns in schools with an exception for law enforcement officers.


The bill generated a lot of attention throughout February and the first half of March as the Legislature debated, amended and eventually passed Waddoups’ version of the bill.


Even before concealed weapons were allowed in schools, guns would show up in one from time to time. Bunger’s story is only one of many. Just a week after Bunger’s faux pas, Granite School District officers learned a fourth-grader at Meadow Moor Elementary had taken his father’s .22-caliber revolver to school. The boy said he took the gun out of his father’s locked car one morning before school on a dare from a classmate. He was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on a school property.


The boy’s father, a concealed weapons permit holder, was investigated for possible reckless endangerment, but the charges were dropped.


Within a week of that incident, two guns were found on Salt Lake County school grounds. A student from West High School took a gun to Central High School to meet a friend. The West High student openly displayed the gun as he rode the bus to the home of the friend, and was later booked into juvenile detention as an investigation was opened. The friend was referred to the Safe Schools Board.


A couple of days later, a shotgun was found behind a dumpster at Viewmont Elementary by a 12-year-old.


Meanwhile, Utah’s guns-versus-no guns debate has attracted national attention. Recently several politicians and school district officials, as well as leaders of public and private gun organizations, received invitations from CNN and MSNBC to discuss the issue.


“I guess most people want to know why the Utah Legislature would want guns in school,” says Sen. Arent.


Many school districts and school board leaders are asking the same question. But burdened with the task of rewriting policies to comply with the new state law, they are trying to find ways to avoid instances like Bunger’s.


Some districts are discouraging permit holders from storing their guns in a desk drawer, handbag, coat pocket or even a locked coat closet. Officials want the weapons to be attached to the person with a holster at all times. And so does Rasmussen.


“We have purse snatchings all the time. Desks get broken into. Things fall out of pockets,” Rasmussen says. “Guns should always be properly attached to the body and that requires a holster.” He believes it’s the only way to avoid incidents where guns get into the wrong hands.


“It rarely happens,” says Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. “People will hear a story consisting of extenuating circumstances and use them as examples of why they don’t want concealed weapons in schools.”


Shurtleff pointed to an incident at the University of Virginia Appalachian School of Law where two students carrying concealed weapons managed to stop a law student’s shooting spree in January 2002.


But people opposed to guns in schools have their own tit-for-tat responses. They point to the case of Robert Flores, who was a concealed weapons permit holder when he carried five handguns and 200 rounds of ammunition into the University of Arizona’s nursing school and killed three teachers before turning a gun on himself.


Lt. Rasmussen shares Shurtleff’s hope but not his optimism. “I hope and pray it [a gun incident] doesn’t happen,” he says. “But it has happened before, and I can’t imagine that adding more guns to the mix is going to decrease the amount of firearm incidents on school grounds.”


What no one seems to be talking about—or preparing for—is a repeat of the Bunger incident—next time, possibly, with more dire consequences. The prospect of not getting lucky the second time—with the result that a student could die—seems to be off everyone’s radar screen.


So while they may be fine-tuning their policies about guns on campus to conform with state law, school districts such as Granite, Jordan and Murray have not discussed adding curriculum about gun safety. Sen. Waddoups appears to be unconcerned.


“Teachers are already overloaded with things that have to be taught; I wouldn’t want to mandate something else,” Waddoups says. “It is a matter that is perhaps best taught at home, but I can’t mandate that either. If teachers chose to teach children to avoid touching a gun, that would be fine by me.”


Sharon Prescott, Granite District school services director, points out that the state’s core curriculum for health allows for teaching safety to mitigate a variety of risks that could include firearms. “It’s the same clause that also allows for teaching of programs like D.A.R.E.”


What some schools in the district have done, says Prescott, is show elementary students a National Rifle Association seven-minute safety cartoon called “Eddie the Eagle.” The NRA’s message for children comes complete with a song and choreographed dance moves. The video repeats: “Stop! Don’t Touch! Leave the area. Tell an adult.”


The problem, of course, is that the kid who picked up Bunger’s gun did exactly what Eddie the Eagle told him not to do. To opponents of guns in schools, “Eddie the Eagle” is of dubious benefit.


“The onus of gun safety should be placed on adults, not children,” says Marla Kennedy, spokeswoman for the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.


Kennedy claims Eddie the Eagle doesn’t work for psychological reasons. “Children can’t control the response to pickup a firearm no matter how many times they have been told not to,” she says.


And she points to research compiled in a report released by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation last summer about gun safety programs for children and teens. The report says children who undergo avoidance training have been shown in experimental settings to find and play with guns at the same rates as children who do not receive the training. The report concludes that gun avoidance programs for children “hold only limited promise.”


Reinforcing Kennedy’s assertion that children have poor impulse control when in the presence of guns, the research concluded that children often lack the cognitive maturity these programs expect them to have. This lack of control continues through junior high, Kennedy says.


The majority of the research in this study was conducted by Marjorie Hardy, a professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. There were multiple studies conducted, one of which included a police officer telling children about gun safety, explaining the difference between real guns and fake guns, the danger of handling real guns, and what to do if the children found a gun. The children were then sent to a playroom where unloaded guns had been placed. According to the study, nearly all the children picked up the guns and began pointing them around the room.


Winton Clark Aposhian, the leader of the Utah Self Defense Instructor Network, criticizes the study’s methods and disagrees with its conclusions.


“When you put a kid in a room with a bunch of toys and tell them to play, and between the toys the scientists have placed a gun, of course the kid is going to pick it up,” Aposhian says. “That is not scientific research; that is common sense.”


Rasmussen believes that, for the most part, kids who are taught to respect guns will not play with them. But, curiously, he points to the children who found Jim Bunger’s gun as evidence. “They were a bunch of sixth-graders, but they had been taught enough to know what to do. The kid even held the gun up against his body to avoid a commotion. He handled the firearm exactly like his father had taught him to, and he was only 11 or 12 years old.”


Kennedy is convinced gun safety education programs would be “wasted energy, tax dollars and time” for teachers already stretched to cover required curriculum. “My top priority will always be to remove the guns from the school grounds, period,” she says. “I have a tremendous amount of hope that these laws will be changed this year. You can only laugh in the face of the public for so long before they do something about it. You can only slap them in the face about gun laws and the safety of their children for so long before they get up and do something about it.”


And according to Sen. Arent, that’s precisely what might happen. “The Legislature’s views don’t represent the views of the population,” Arent says, pointing to statistics from public opinion polls, including those conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and paid for by the Deseret News and KSL-5. In 1999, the polls showed 90 percent of Utahn’s supported banning all guns from schools. A year later, the percentage had slipped to 61 percent. A 2002 poll from the same organizations indicated 64 percent favored banning guns at colleges and universities.


While the debate surrounding concealed weapons goes on, the number of permits issued each month is climbing. On average more than 1,000 permits are issued every month, the State Bureau of Criminal Identification reports, and the state seems well on the way to setting an annual record.


“We’re not sure why there is such an interest this year, but there is,” says Joyce Carter, firearms section supervisor for the bureau. In 2002, just over 7,200 permits were issued and already in 2003, from January through the end of May, 5,412 permits had been issued.


Since 1995, when Waddoups led the charge to change Utah from a “may issue” to a “shall issue” state, more than 57,000 people have taken the classes and passed the background checks needed to receive a concealed weapons permit. Before that change, persons wishing to legally carry a concealed weapon had to show a need, such as someone who has a legal protective order against another person.


Revocation can occur or a permit request can be declined if someone is convicted offenses involving drugs or alcohol, a violent crime, domestic violence, fraud or solicitation. A person found mentally incompetent can also have his or her permit denied or revoked.


“We have very strict policies and checks occur every single day to make sure those who carry permits have not violated laws that would get their permits revoked,” Carter says. And indeed the rate is low—only 1.6 percent. But the circumstances surrounding those revocations can be alarming.


Nearly 100 of the over 800 revocations in 2001 were for felony convictions, including six for murder or attempted murder. Twenty-two permit holders were convicted of a crime involving rape or sexual assault, one was convicted of kidnapping and three were convicted of aggravated assault.


Of the non-felony convictions, more than 160 were for domestic violence, nearly 200 involved drugs or alcohol and one involved negligent homicide.


Perhaps some of these problems could have been avoided if the denial rate, which is less than one percent, were a little tougher. Still, that’s the rate gun advocates like Bunger or Clark Aposhian of the Utah Self Defense Instructor Network point to in support of claims that most concealed weapons carriers tend to be law–abiding citizens.


Few argue about the state’s background check process, and most agree it is comprehensive. But advocates on both sides would like to close a number of the state’s gun-law loopholes.


Waddoups wants to see private gun sellers at gun shows required to perform the same background checks on customers as larger gun dealers. “It’s a matter of equality as far as I see it,” he says.


Meanwhile, Daniels and Arent want to do away with state law that accepts all other states’ concealed weapons permits. “Not all states have the same background checks we have,” Daniels says. “In some states, you just go to the county recorder and fill out a paper—it’s as easy as getting a fishing license.”


If a person with an out-of-state permit is convicted in Utah of a permit-revokable crime, it can’t be taken away. “That is a huge problem and a safety concern for our state,” Daniels says.


Most lawmakers and lobbyist agree that gun control is the most sensitive issue in Utah politics. Dozens of bills have been dropped in the last 20 years because they attempted to change some part of the gun statute.


“Everybody has an opinion and most are very emotional about their opinion,” Daniels says.


The AG, however, claims his stance is different than most.


“For me, it is not an emotional issue,” Mark Shurtleff tells City Weekly. “I’m not looking at this from Charlton Heston’s point of view. In my opinion, state law leaves no room for debate. My job is not to write the state laws but to defend them. If people want to change the laws, then they should contact their elected officials get them to change the laws or vote them out of office.”

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Jake Parkinson

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