After the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a historic ruling regarding the Second Amendment right to bear arms, local legal experts say the potential legal impact in Utah has yet to be understood; specifically, how the ruling will impact the state's requirement to allow guns on university campuses.
In its first ruling on the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791, the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, stating individuals do have a constitutional right to own guns. However, the flip side of the high court's majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, states that right is not absolute and the government has a right to license and regulate firearms.
Exactly how is the big unknown.
"This is a big deal," said attorney Troy Booher with the law firm of Snell & Wilmer. Booher, a constitutional law expert, said Thursday's historic ruling is a "mixed bag" for gun rights advocates.
"We know at least that the government can regulate, but we don't know what regulations are appropriate," Booher said. "The majority opinion does say that states are allowed to require a license as long as those requirements aren't arbitrary."
The open language in Scalia's opinion was criticized by dissenting justices, who felt the ruling passed the job of working out regulatory details to the lower courts across the country.
A big legal question is how the ruling will impact the right to carry firearms in certain venues, such as university campuses.
For decades, the University of Utah enforced a ban on guns on campus. In 2004 the Utah Legislature passed a law that forced university officials to lift the ban. That law was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court, which ruled that the school was subject to the will of the Legislature and has to follow the law of allowing concealed weapons on state property.
"Obviously we won't know the real impact until we see how the U.S. Supreme Court's decision is treated by lower courts," said assistant Utah attorney general Brent Burnett, who represented the state in the U.'s gun ban legal fight. "The impact probably will not be significant in Utah because the individual's right to bear arms is in the state's constitution."
Burnett said the ruling is not expected to change existing gun regulations already on the books, such as age limits, limits on assault-type weapons and laws prohibiting felons from possessing guns.
University of Utah law professor, former law school dean and former U.S. Attorney for Utah, Scott Matheson said the ruling states regulation of firearms in "sensitive" locations, such as schools, are seen as appropriate. But, because the ruling deals with a D.C. law, it pertains to federal law rather than state law. Matheson said it's assumed states will be left to regulate firearms as they see fit, but that remains to be seen.
"This is not the final word from the Supreme Court. If anything, this is just the beginning," said Matheson, who added it is likely that a state with strong restrictions on guns will be the first battleground in light of the ruling.
One thing that has struck legal experts is just how close the vote was from tipping the other direction. Matheson said Justice Anthony Kennedy was seen as the "swing vote" on this issue. Kennedy was nominated by President Ronald Regan in 1988 and is seen as taking the "swing vote" position held for years by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The opinion seems to sit well with local gun-rights advocates.
"This is huge. This is a historic time, not just for firearm rights but for individual rights at a time when many feel that our individual rights are being covered over to the gain of the federal government," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and active legislative lobbyist.
Aposhian said most gun advocates already accept current gun regulations, as long as they are deemed reasonable. He sees the ruling as a victory over gun-control advocates. "Gone are these hand-wringing, bed-wetting liberals who have hung everything on a misinterpretation of the Second Amendment," Aposhian said.
Gary Sackett, board member with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said his group is placing significance on the ability of governments to regulate. "This case once and for all puts to rest the notion that states and municipalities can reasonably regulate guns," Sackett said, adding the right to own a gun is not absolute.
The group, Sackett said, still believes gun control is needed to prevent violence. "More guns mean more violence, more grief and more injury. There is a high correlation between the two," he said.Sackett said the ruling is not likely to impact any of Utah's gun laws. Experts on both sides agree there will be little legal controversy in the state.
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