Cities navigate new Kansas law prohibiting gun regulations

07/01/2014 2:39 PM

07/02/2014 11:25 AM

Cities in Kansas are repealing ordinances restricting guns to comply with a state law that went into effect Tuesday even as some officials complain the state has trampled local authority.

The law, HB 2578, went into effect Tuesday but some cities had already started changing their laws. The law prohibits cities from banning the transportation, possession, carrying and sale of firearms and knives, leaving regulation up to the state. That means cities can no longer ban the open carry of weapons in city buildings, parks and sidewalks.

Proponents of the law say it unifies gun laws across the state, but opponents are concerned that open carry has no place in an urban area and the state is trampling on cities’ ability to govern themselves.

Prairie Village and Lenexa repealed their bans on open carry in the past month while Overland Park, Merriam and Roeland Park repealed bans more than a year ago. Leawood and the consolidated government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., will remove their bans now that the state law is effective. Some cities, like Shawnee and Olathe, had no gun restrictions on the books.

Rep. Brett Hildabrand, a Republican from Shawnee, said the law creates a unified system across the state, which is especially important in Johnson County, where a several cities create a “patchwork” of laws.

“You could break the law four or five times driving across the county,” he said.

But not everyone in the Legislature agrees with Hildabrand. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Overland Park, voted against the bill because open carry doesn’t fit the culture of her district, which includes Overland Park and Prairie Village. Clayton said open carry might have a place is rural areas, but not in the metro area.

“We don’t go to western Kansas and tell them how to live,” she said.

Cities’ worries about the law go beyond weapons. The state enacting a law that overtakes municipal laws is a violation of the state’s Home Rule Act, a 1960 law the gives cities and counties the right to make certain decisions without state approval, Clayton said.

The Kansas League of Municipalities says the law reduces local control. Erik Sartorius, league executive director, said that the best form of governance comes from those closest to the people: the cities and counties.

“There are levels of frustration, but the law is the law,” Sartorius said.

The law is also a change for police departments.

Police Capt. Tim Schwartzkopf of the Prairie Village Police Separtment said the new law changes the way officers interact with the public.

Schwartzkopf is concerned because carrying a gun in places like a city park used to be illegal, but now isn’t, meaning officers will have to guess the intentions of any person carrying a gun.

“It’s hard to know what a person is going to do because you can’t get into their head,” he said.

Schwartzkopf said the police department has used information from other cities about how to handle open carry to prepare officers. Because dispatchers are usually the first to receive a call about a gun, he said it was especially important to train them on new laws.

In Overland Park, there hasn’t been much of a change since the city repealed its open carry ban in 2012, said Gary Mason, police public information officer.

After the city allowed open carry in October 2012, Mason said an individual was carrying a gun at the city’s soccer complex during a youth game. Several concerned parents phoned police, but the individual left.

Although police have seen an increase in calls about open carry laws, there have been no major incident, Mason said. For him open carry is better than conceal carry.

“At least with open carry we know where the gun is,” he said. “It’s the ones that we don’t know about that cause the greatest concern.”

Shortly after Merriam repealed its ban on open carry a year ago, Councilman Al Frisby said an elderly couple called police after they saw a man with a handgun on a city sidewalk.

Frisby prefers concealed carry, he said, because unlike open carry, concealed carry permits require extensive background checks and training. With recent events like the Sandy Hook shooting and the shooting at the Jewish Community Center, Frisby said he’s concerned about senior citizens and young people seeing a gun and not understanding the situation.

“It’s the OK Corral just around the corner,” he said.

Roeland Park repealed its law last year for financial reasons, City Administrator Aaron Otto said. At that time, cities could ban weapons if they applied for a four-year exemption. That exemption came with stipulations like limiting entrances to municipal buildings, placing guards at entrances and installing metal detectors, which Otto said the city couldn’t afford. During a recent remodeling of city hall, security features were added to the building, but Otto would not talk in detail about those features.

The consolidated government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., was granted a four-year exemption last year, said spokesman Mike Taylor.

The city has guards and metal detectors at the courthouse and city hall. The government will assess the cost of adding metal detectors to other municipal buildings, but Taylor said it’s unlikely the city can afford it.

“My guess is it would cost us millions of dollars,” he said.

Taylor said it’s not just firearms that concern him. The law also prevents a city from regulating the carrying of knives, which the law defines as a dagger, dirk, switchblade, stiletto, straight edge razor or any other dangerous or deadly cutting instrument. The size of the weapon is not specified, Taylor said, so people could carry a sword legally.

“I could carry a Japanese war sword on one hip, a TEC-9 on the other and an assault rifle on my back,” he said. “Perfectly legal.”

His main concern is crowded buildings, like the city’s municipal court where plaintiffs and defendants are close and a person with a knife could easily go unnoticed.

“(Someone) could stab somebody in the gut and get out of there before anyone noticed,” he said.

Taylor, who lobbied against HB 2578 for the consolidated government, agrees that the law hinders the cities home rule authority.

At the local level, citizens have more of a chance to share concerns and talk to elected officials than they do at the state level. Taylor said it’s particularly frustrating because legislators, particularly Republicans, complain about the federal government superseding states’ rights and here they’ve nullified local laws.

“It’s hypocritical,” he said. “They trampled on us with both feet.”

Differing city gun laws have caused controversy in the past. In 2012 the Libertarian party attempted to sue Leawood and Prairie Village over their gun bans, but the case was dismissed. Earlier this year Grant Nelson, a former lieutenant governor candidate for the Libertarian Party, filed a lawsuit in Prairie Village after the city barred him from carrying a gun in a public park.

Loren Stanton, a member of the anti-gun violence group the Brady Campaign, began passing out “no guns allowed” signs to local businesses over a year ago. He said he visited countless businesses and about 200 took signs, while another 100 said they said they agreed with banning open carry, but didn’t want to lose any potential customers.

“I got a strong sense of overwhelming dislike for open carry,” he said

Stanton said that open carry can send the wrong message. Carrying a gun into sensitive areas like churches, near schools and at gatherings at parks sends a hostile message, he said.

“I think it’s an unfriendly thing,” he said, adding there should be public education about what’s appropriate. “I don’t think you should walk into a Wendy’s with an AR-15 or anything like that.”

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