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Local agencies face steep costs to keep guns out under new law

Updated: 2013-07-19T13:21:09Z

Tiny Roeland Park never really had much choice.

Sure, the northeast Johnson County city could have exempted itself — for six months at least, and probably for four more years — from a new law allowing concealed weapons into public buildings.

But officials knew doing that was ultimately going to cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It just wasn’t realistic for us,” Mayor Joel Marquardt said.

So the city complied with the law. Now, if you’re licensed, you can carry a concealed gun into any of the city’s five public facilities.

What happened in Roeland Park provides a glimpse of the future for thousands of public buildings in Kansas after the Legislature expanded the concealed weapons law this year.

The new law allows licensed concealed weapon carriers — there are 63,400 statewide — to take their firearms into public buildings.

Public agencies can put that off for four years while they decide how they want to comply with the law: either install new security measures and ban concealed guns or allow the weapons into their buildings.

Previously, public agencies could ban guns by simply posting a sign showing that buildings were off limits to firearms.

But critics said that a sticker on a door provided a false sense of security, setting up an honor system that couldn’t guarantee a gun-free building.

“I wanted the public to think about those signs and realize that the opposite of what they felt was true,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican and the author of the legislation.

Cities or counties can still ban concealed guns under the new law, but they must set up “adequate security,” defined as metal detectors or any other equipment and staff to ensure guns aren’t allowed in a building.

It’s a potentially expensive response to the new law, so costly that many public agencies may allow concealed firearms they’d previously deemed unsafe.

“There will be some communities who never have the money to put in security,” said Kim Winn, deputy director for the League of Kansas Municipalities.

De Soto in western Johnson County also agreed to allow concealed guns under the new law because of similar financial worries.

“There was no way a small town like us could afford to do all that was required,” De Soto Mayor Tim Maniez said.

The University of Kansas Hospital provides a good example of the price of a checkpoint.

Officials estimate it costs about $200,000 to staff just one metal detector at the hospital’s emergency room 24 hours a day for a year. The metal detectors can run from $2,300 to $7,000.

The cost would multiply based on the number of buildings and public entrances.

Knox said the easy answer is just to take the old signs down and allow licensed concealed carriers to bring their guns into a public building.

“People are truly worried about licensed concealed carriers,” the legislator said. “In most cases, they’re going to figure out that it’s not the licensed, law-abiding citizens we need to worry about.”

The costs have concerned many smaller public hospitals across the state. About two dozen publicly owned hospitals have said they will take the temporary exemption, many saying they do not have the money to pay for the security needed to ban concealed weapons.

The municipal hospital in the 2,500-person town of Herington in central Kansas is among those that will continue to ban concealed guns — for now.

As a 16-bed hospital, there likely will not be enough money to pay for adding the security the law requires to ban guns in four years, Herington Municipal Hospital CEO Michael Ryan said.

“The cost to comply with those regulations is completely outside the scope of what I’d be able to afford,” Ryan said.

Most cities in Johnson and Wyandotte counties have opted to keep their gun bans at least until the end of the year. That includes Overland Park, Olathe, Lenexa, Leawood, Prairie Village, Merriam and Mission as well as Johnson and Wyandotte county governments.

Overall, about 350 public agencies statewide, including libraries, park districts, public hospitals and health clinics, will not allow guns in their buildings for the rest of the year.

The six-month opt-out buys time for public agencies to decide if they want to extend their ban to four years.

After four years, they would then either allow concealed guns or ban them but set up security measures such as metal detectors.

The law forces every public agency to examine security, sometimes for hundreds of buildings.

It’s a mountainous effort. The state university system alone has an estimated 860 buildings not counting the state’s community colleges and technical schools.

The Kansas Board of Regents temporarily banned concealed weapons in the buildings at its six universities, including the University of Kansas and Kansas State.

“The law really calls for a building-by-building assessment,” Regents chairman Fred Logan said. “That’s going to be a fairly significant task.”

Johnson County government is in a similar predicament. It declared roughly 300 buildings exempt from the concealed-carry law until January.

That list will likely be winnowed by year’s end, when the county would have to declare a four-year exemption for buildings where it might want to outlaw concealed weapons.

Johnson County Commissioner Jason Osterhaus said it would be too costly to install the security required to exempt more than 300 buildings from the law. He expected some to eventually be fitted with the required security measures.

“There are certain buildings that make sense to exempt the carrying of firearms for various safety reasons,” said Osterhaus, holding out the courthouse as a possibility.

The new law also has raised questions, and not only about the potential cost of banning concealed weapons.

City and county officials say the law seems to contradict itself on whether employees licensed to carry concealed guns are allowed to bring weapons to the office. They also wonder what would constitute “adequate” security at a building not typically open to the public, such as a wastewater treatment plant.

“This is not the most clearly written bill you’ve ever seen,” Winn said.

A lack of clarity prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to exempt some buildings where it was uncertain about how the law applies.

Generally, concealed weapons are permitted in state buildings that do not have security checkpoints.

But the state has declared a six-month exemption for a handful of buildings — such as several housing the Kansas Lottery — where the state believed it leased private space in buildings with other tenants.

The Department of Administration has asked Attorney General Derek Schmidt for an opinion about how the new law would apply to those buildings. He thinks those concerns are easing.

“My impression is that most of the jurisdictions that have wrestled with those questions are coming to a comfort level where they now understand what the law is,” Schmidt said. “There seems to be fewer questions about those basic things.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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