University of Utah administrators say the school's new gun policy for residence halls is designed to balance the legal right of concealed-carry permit holders to bring a firearm anywhere on campus against the interests of dorm residents who don't want to share a suite with an armed student.

However, the "gun-free roommate" policy, in effect for the first time this semester, merely guarantees a room reassignment only after a student discovers his or her roommate holds a permit. That's important because a 2007 law addressing the issue goes further, allowing students to ask to be paired with gun-free roommates.

The disparity between U. policy and the new law arises because U. officials decided not to systematically find out (or cannot systematically find out, depending on your perspective) which dorm residents hold concealed weapons permits.

But administrators insist the university's carefully crafted gun procedures virtually guarantee a gun-free room, particularly in light of age restrictions that would bar most dorm residents from obtaining a weapons permit. U. officials may ask individual students whether they hold a permit, but they would never maintain a list of permit holders.

"We are committed to abiding by the law and to respecting the interests of students on both sides of the issue," says dean of students Annie Nebeker Christensen.

The policy was adopted following the passage of Senate Bill 251, legislation fashioned to resolve a legal impasse between U. officials and lawmakers over guns on campus. The bill does not address access to information about which students have concealed weapons permits, considered confidential under Utah's government records laws. A key lawmaker thought the U. would not have to broach the question of whether a particular student holds a weapons permit to ensure gun-free rooms.

"The way we envisioned it was if they have eight people come in at the beginning of the year saying they want a roommate who doesn't hold a permit, you can pretty well be assured those eight aren't permit holders and you put them together," said Sen. Gregory Bell, the Fruit Heights Republican who sponsored SB251.

So far this year, officials know of no dorm resident holding a permit, nor has any resident raised the issue of a gun in the dorms.

"We rely on the student to discover the situation and they come to us and tell us they are not comfortable with the situation," says Jerry Basford, the U. associate vice president for student affairs. "We keep rooms off-line for this purpose. If they fill up, we would move them to our guest house."

One pro-gun critic of the new roommate policy, however, says he knows of at least one dorm resident who holds a permit and stores a weapon in the dorm.

"I look at it as pure and simple political discrimination. Let's say I don't want a roommate who is Mormon, could I have a box that says I don't want to room with a Republican or a liberal?" asks Thomas McCrory, a paraplegic accounting student who once lived in the dorms with his handgun.

"If a police officer asked me I would certainly show them my permit," says McCrory. "If it was an administrator, I would say, 'It's none of your business.' "

An official with the Bureau of Criminal Identification, the agency that regulates weapons permits, backs McCrory's position.

"They [administrators] could ask, but they couldn't attach any punitive measure to it. A permit holder doesn't have to give that information up," said Lt. Douglas Anderson. "It's against the law for us to give that information out. If you're in the course of a lawful police investigation, we would cooperate and give that to them."

According to U. general counsel John Morris, however, the confidentiality rule applies only to release of records and administrators must learn whether particular students hold a permit if the U. is to meet the promises of SB251.

Traditionally, university officials across the state have banned firearms on campus. But lawmakers in recent years passed measures requiring public campuses to accommodate those permitted to carry concealed weapons, igniting a five-year legal skirmish with U. officials. SB251 conceded little ground to the U., but it did resolve an unproductive controversy.

"It allowed us to ask students if they are a permit holder," says the U.'s chief lobbyist Kim Wirthlin. "They need to tell us so the roommate can make a choice."

To avoid alarming incoming students, however, officials chose not to insert questions regarding guns on dorm applications, according to Barb Snyder, vice president for student affairs. But if a student is observed with a weapon, U. officials will insist the student divulge whether he or she has a permit.

"If the student doesn't cooperate, we could involve law enforcement to help discuss how we would use the information," Christensen says. "I find students with concealed weapons very reasonable and thoughtful."

The Utah System of Higher Education would have preferred to emerge from the 2007 legislative session with the authority to keep guns out of dormitories altogether, not to mention college hospitals, arenas, libraries and faculty offices. Possession of a nonpermitted weapon on campus remains grounds for expulsion, a permitted weapon must remain concealed at all times, even in the private dorm room.

"We do have safes in the rooms. They can't just take off their gun and lay it on the bed," Basford says.
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* BRIAN MAFFLY can be reached at [email protected] or 801-257-8605.

Guns in dorms
* A bill passed by the 2007 Legislature authorizes higher education institutions to make a rule that allows dormitory residents to request only roommates who are not licensed to carry a concealed firearm.

* The University of Utah, however, adopted the following language for its residence hall policy: "If at any time you become aware that your roommate or suite mate has a license to carry a concealed weapon, and you do not want to live with a permit holder, please alert the Housing & Residential Education office and we will be able to accommodate you changing to a new room location."