Visitors will be allowed to bring concealed guns into the Kansas Statehouse starting in July because legislative leaders on Thursday refused to exercise the power granted to them by state law to prevent it.
The change is part of a measure enacted last year, aimed at allowing holders of concealed carry permits to take their weapons into more public buildings. That law said top lawmakers could block Capitol visitors from carrying concealed if they acted – but only this month – and declared that the building’s security is adequate to keep all firearms out.
The top seven legislative leaders convened Thursday to handle administrative tasks in their last regular monthly meeting before the deadline. They had a short, general briefing on security matters and adjourned without any discussion of the coming change on concealed guns – ensuring that visitors will soon be allowed to bring them inside.
At least a few of Thursday’s visitors to the Statehouse didn’t like the change. Betsi Jackson of Topeka, who was touring the building with her 9-year-old daughter, Evie, and 7-year-old son, Gray, said she’s not generally opposed to concealed carry. But she said it will be difficult to track who’s armed and that she “would feel less safe.”
The Republican-dominated Legislature, however, has strong gun-rights majorities in both chambers and in recent years has approved a series of measures backed by the Kansas State Rifle Association, a gun lobbying group. Last year’s measure passed with large, bipartisan majorities in both chambers, and both Democratic leaders supported it. Also, the law already permitted legislators to carry concealed in the Statehouse, regardless of whether it was allowed for visitors.
“The taxpayers, like myself and other gun owners in Kansas, as well as everybody else, paid for this building, and we don’t believe that a certain group of people should be elevated above another group of people,” said Patricia Stoneking, the State Rifle Association’s president. “It is quite reasonable to allow us to have that same right.”
Stoneking said other states allow concealed weapons in their state capitol buildings. Texas does, for example. But in Missouri, legislators can carry concealed weapons while visitors cannot.
Even with broad support for last year’s law – and his “yes” vote – Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said he’s concerned about the change. The Topeka Democrat said he'll work on a policy to allow the Capitol police to confiscate weapons from visitors they mistrust or who appear “agitated” when they enter the building.
Legislative leaders plan to undergo a detailed, private briefing about Statehouse security in July. Hensley said he didn’t move Thursday to prevent visitors from carrying concealed because he thought the attempt would be futile.
“Now, the important thing in July, when we meet, is to give our Capitol police the discretion to be able to deal with situations as they see fit,” he said.
The law enacted last year says local governments and state agencies may continue banning concealed guns in their buildings through 2017 but must declare publicly that each site has adequate security plans. After that, concealed weapons can be banned only if a site has guards or metal detectors – which is likely to be expensive if officials try to keep the guns out of all buildings.
Critics said such policies should be set locally and worried about increased gun violence. But supporters said allowing concealed guns makes public buildings safer, because permit holders can stop shootings and other crimes. They also noted that permit holders undergo background checks and training.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said it would be “hypocritical” to push for allowing concealed weapons in public buildings, but not the Statehouse.