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Utah cities pushed to purge gun rules by national group

Published August 21, 2014 1:00 pm

Second Amendment • U.S. gun-rights group urges repeal of local firearm laws in conflict with state code.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The small Davis County community of West Point was poised Tuesday night to drop a law banning guns in the city cemetery and replace it with one outlawing brandishing or firing a gun in the graveyard, described in code as a sacred place.

Two weeks earlier, Draper repealed a ban on firearms in its city amphitheater, in parks and on trails, amending its ordinance to say no one may fire a gun in those locales.

Sandy, meantime, is preparing to throw out a law barring guns in or around city-owned day-care and health-services operations.

Utah's capital hasn't decided whether to jettison laws banning guns in city parks and all nonsecure areas of Salt Lake City International Airport. But its attorneys are reviewing the ordinances.

Behind the sudden urge to purge local laws of firearms restrictions in these and dozens of other Utah cities is a push by a national gun-rights organization.

The Second Amendment Foundation, based in Washington state, has written to 49 local Utah governments demanding they repeal various ordinances that violate a state law reserving almost all gun-regulation power to the state Legislature. Cities still can outlaw discharging or brandishing weapons, but not possessing or carrying them.

One state at a time • "We're going state by state, one state at time, going through every single ordinance of every city and county in every state finding where the cities and counties have ordinances enacted that are in conflict with state law … and then contacting each one of them to remove the ordinances," said Alan Gottlieb, executive vice president of the foundation.

The organization has an estimated 30 lawsuits going on around the country and was behind a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case challenging Chicago's handgun ban that resulted in a landmark ruling that states and local governments must recognize the individual right to own and use a gun for self-defense.

"Our ultimate goal," Gottlieb said, "is to get as many laws that we feel infringe on gun rights off the books as possible."

His organization — sometimes described as the legal arm of the gun-rights movement — would prefer to clean up all the local ordinances without the trouble and expense of going to court.

But it is ready and willing to do so.

"We usually give [local governments] time to do something unless they flat out stick it in our face. And nobody in Utah has done that yet," Gottlieb said. "I'd say, quite frankly, the cooperation we're getting from jurisdictions in Utah to remove the ordinances that are offensive, so to speak, is much better than it has been in most other states.

He singled out Maryland, Oregon and California as states where cities have offered the most pushback.

"In California, we end up in court a lot."

Gun-friendly • It's no secret Utah is one of the most gun-friendly states in the union.

The political debate here has shifted during the past 20 years from arguing about how many hoops a person should have to jump through to obtain a rare concealed-carry permit to a Legislature-approved bill — vetoed last year by the governor — that would have dumped permit laws altogether to allow any adult without a felony conviction to pack a piece under his jacket or in her purse.

Three years ago, Utah became the first state in the nation to formally recognize a state gun and the tiny central Utah town of Spring City passed a resolution last year encouraging every household to own a firearm.

Most politicians run on a pro-gun-rights platform, disdain any kind of gun control beyond a steady aim and actively seek the National Rifle Association's endorsement.

Steve Gunn is something of a rarity in Utah political circles.

An elected Holladay City Council member, Gunn for years has been an outspoken board member for the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.

He wasn't aware of the Second Amendment Foundation's so-called pre-emption project (relying on state laws pre-empting local firearms restrictions) or its demand letter sent to the city attorney in his own community.

"The question I would pose to them is: 'Do you really think it is in the public's interest to eliminate these ordinances?' " Gunn said.

Pointing to the major legal victories of gun-rights advocates before the current U.S. Supreme Court, the retired attorney noted that most of those dealt with the right to keep a gun in one's home for self-defense.

"So I'm a little surprised that Second Amendment folks are now expanding the scope of their attack to include guns in cemeteries and guns in parks. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised."

Even so, Gunn said if Holladay does have any ordinances in conflict with state firearms law, "we probably will change them."

Utah's turn • Miko Tempski, the foundation's general counsel, said Utah is the seventh state to undergo the city-by-city scrutiny of gun laws. Researchers found 49 ordinances that conflicted with state law.

Eight have responded so far to the letters that went out July 8 — Draper, Herriman, Ivins, Park City, Sandy, Utah County, West Point and West Valley City. All agreed to review their ordinances and some confirmed that they would remove the targeted provisions.

Sandy City Attorney Walter Miller promised prompt action, noting that the City Council's "respect for the Second Amendment closely mirrors that of your organization."

West Point City Attorney Felshaw King responded that his city's ordinance banning guns from cemeteries did not, in fact, violate state law. "Nevertheless," King wrote, "West Point City has no intention or desire to infringe upon any legitimate Second Amendment rights."

City Manager Kyle Laws said the city staff didn't see the existing ordinance as a problem but "agreed to change it" and sent the proposed amendment to the City Council.

Eric Bunderson, attorney for the state's second largest city, West Valley City, said the Second Amendment Foundation had wrongly interpreted its ordinance as banning guns from schools or buildings used for school-sponsored activities.

The ordinance actually bans possession of guns in schools if they "cause alarm, disturbance, annoyance, or injury to any person."

Tempski said his staff is reviewing that response, but he doesn't foresee a problem with most Utah communities voluntarily agreeing to weed out the offending ordinances.

"We hope that's exactly how it goes. That way we can clean up [the local codes] and nobody has to spend a whole bunch of money or time dealing with it," Tempski said. "You can't sue them all, or at least we don't have the budget."

dharrie@sltrib.com