Mike Miller knows his way around guns.
So the training course required to get a concealed-carry permit in Kansas seemed to him, at first anyway, like a time-wasting technicality.
A box to check off on a form.
But that cocky skepticism vanished during an eight-hour class that dwelled far less on shooting skills than on the weighty legalities and liabilities that come with firing a deadly weapon.
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Questions like: When does justifiable homicide cross the line to murder? What are the legal limits of self-defense?
“It’s a giant responsibility,” said Miller, a publicist at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. “That’s probably the biggest thing these folks are going to miss.”
The folks of whom he speaks are Kansans who might not bother getting that training once a new law takes effect this summer.
As of July 1, no training will be required for someone choosing to holster a hidden gun or shove one into a purse or backpack.
After that date, concealed-gun permits will be strictly voluntary in Kansas.
And no resident of the state wanting to carry a concealed weapon in Kansas will be subject to a state criminal background check so that law enforcement could determine whether they are even eligible to possess a firearm. (Although federal laws will still apply, requiring background checks for some gun purchases but not all.)
Some see that as a dangerous mistake that could lead to lost lives, either due to trigger-happy vigilantes or cops who find themselves shooting law-abiding citizens who accidentally point a gun at them.
But supporters of the changes think such concerns are unfounded.
After all, gun owners will still need a permit to carry a concealed weapon outside Kansas to comply with other states’ laws. Which means they’ll still have to pay for background checks and training.
And some suspect that even handgun owners unwilling to get a permit because they don’t plan to leave the state with a gun will still want instruction on how to use their guns when they fear for their safety.
“Responsible people who are choosing to carry a firearm daily are going to want training,” said Mike Mosher, an Overland Park police officer who owns a firearms-training company called Tactical Simulations Solutions.
But that’s just his guess.
No one knows for sure how many people will choose to go without the training, which costs between $75 and $150 on average in addition to the $132.50 for a permit.
Although unable to project the effect, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature this year joined a half dozen other states and expanded the constitutional carry law at the urging of the National Rifle Association and other gun groups.
It was already legal to carry a weapon openly without a permit, training or background check. It only made sense to expand that right to concealed weapons, supporters said.
“This bill is about freedom and liberty,” state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Republican from Palco, said in arguing for the passage of Senate Bill 45 at a hearing last month. “This bill is about Kansans being able to exercise a constitutionally protected right without having to ask permission of the state government.”
Others speaking in favor of the change included the majority leader of the senate, an NRA lobbyist and the head of the Kansas State Rifle Association.
At that same hearing, others fretted about the tradeoffs states like Kansas make when they drop the training and background checks that were part of the permitting process.
In addition to gun-control advocates, opponents included the sheriff’s departments of Douglas and Reno counties and firearms instructors such as Jack A. Robinson of Wichita, who said removing the permit requirement would be like “concealed carry without a clue.”
Even some NRA members were opposed.
“In a perfect world, people would take the time to learn what they need to know before carrying a concealed weapon,” Will Hoerl of Overland Park said. “In the less-than-perfect world we have, I fear that far too many people will simply decide they can now grab a gun and leave the house with little, if any clue about when (and) how they can legally use it.”
Gov. Sam Brownback agreed that training was valuable as he signed the bill. But under the Second Amendment, Brownback said, Americans have a right to be armed.
“It is a constitutional right,” Brownback said, “and we’re removing a barrier to that right.”
At the forefront
Some consider that to be a selective reading of the Second Amendment, which states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
They point out that the Militia is supposed to be “well regulated.”
So there is a constitutional argument for gun permits and training, said Brian Malte at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
“In our society,” he said, “it’s just common sense that someone carrying a loaded hidden handgun in public, most people think there should be training, that they know how to handle it.”
A SurveyUSA poll in March showed that 78 percent of likely voters in Kansas support requiring permits and training to carry concealed handguns.
That was also the feeling of the Kansas Legislature in 2006 when it enacted the current law.
Since then, more than 90,000 Kansans have gotten permits. Anyone 21 and older is eligible except convicted felons or those with a criminal history for drug use, domestic violence or multiple DUIs.
Prior to the Personal and Family Protection Act taking effect in 2007, Kansas was one of only four states that refused to issue its citizens permits to carry concealed weapons. Not even former law enforcement officers qualified.
Now Kansas is in the forefront of a trend to remove the permitting requirement.
Kansas joins Vermont, which never has restricted its citizens’ rights to carry concealed weapons, along with Arizona, Wyoming and Alaska.
Montana requires no permit in rural areas, which will also be the case in neighboring Idaho, which passed the legislation this year.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recently vetoed a bill similar to the one in Kansas, while Mississippi’s governor signed legislation this year that eliminates the need for permits when transporting a gun in a purse, bag or briefcase.
A number of other state legislatures have also debated similar proposed changes in their laws this year, including Ohio, Maine and New Hampshire.
The gun lobby says Kansans will be safer as a result of the new law.
According to the NRA, which is meeting in Nashville, Tenn., this weekend, murders went down in Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming after those laws took effect in 2003, 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Chris W. Cox, head of the NRA’s institute for legislative affairs, called the new law in Kansas “a common sense measure that allows law-abiding Kansans to exercise their fundamental right to self-protection in the manner that best suits their needs.”
But there are no conclusive data to back up claims that concealed-carry laws lead to lower crime rates. One 2014 study even concluded that crime goes up in states where concealed-carry is allowed, with or without a permit.
However, those findings, like those that purport to show the opposite — that more guns mean less crime — are both based on correlations between changes in the law and crime rates. There is no proven cause and effect.
Better figures are available when it comes to tracking the number of people killed by someone legally permitted to carry a concealed weapon.
The Violence Policy Center, which favors more gun control, said that since 2007, 732 people have been shot and killed in the United States from bullets fired by someone legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon.
Those include accidents, justifiable homicides and murders.
Florida leads the way, with 70 deaths, according to concealedcarrykillers.org.
Yet only one such death occurred in the state of Kansas, the center said.
Less available are facts on the number of shootings with people carrying permits that don’t result in death.
There are anecdotes, such as the man who’d had a few drinks when he accidentally shot his wife in the leg while dining in a Lenexa restaurant a couple of years ago.
The man had a permit, but in Kansas, like many other states, it is illegal to possess a weapon while under the influence, and he was arrested. The shooter went through court-ordered diversion.
Critics of the new Kansas law warn that the number of accidental or questionable shootings are bound to go up due to a lack of adequate training.
“The opposing side will say there is no indication that anything has gone wrong” elsewhere, said Loren Stanton, president of the Brady Campaign’s Kansas chapter and board member of the Missouri/Kansas Grandmothers Against Gun Violence. “But I don’t think they have any credible evidence of that.”
But proponents of constitutional carry say critics are, likewise, overstating the dangers without proof.
“The predictions are always the same and they have always been wrong,” Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association, reminded the legislature.
As for the suggestion that fewer people will apply for permits after the law kicks in, that’s anyone’s guess.
But at least in the short term, the number has not dropped off in Wyoming since requirements for them were removed four years ago.
“We’ve actually increased permits,” said Heather Calvert at the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
Perhaps the biggest headache of the new law will be for law enforcement.
Currently, police can assume that anyone with a permit is eligible to possess a gun because of the background check. And anyone without a permit is violating the law.
Under the new statute, police will have to do background checks on the spot when they encounter someone who has a gun but no permit.
But those curbside checks won’t tell the whole story, said Ed Klumpp, former Topeka police chief and now a lobbyist for the Kansas Peace Officers Association and two other law enforcement groups. The rap sheet will be incomplete.
“The records available will not show us if there is a mental health commitment outside of Kansas,” Klumpp said in testimony last month, “active restraining order, or other similar prohibitions.”
Some of the information now gathered for a concealed-carry background check takes several days to gather, a luxury that won’t be available to a cop making a traffic stop on and after July 1.
That argument didn’t fly in Topeka this session when a majority of lawmakers and Brownback went with personal freedom.
“Our citizens, statistically, virtually always choose to do the right thing,” Sen. Forrest J. Knox, Republican from Altoona, told the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs.
With the safeguards now in place going away, Stanton said, there’s little choice but to trust people’s good judgment.
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738.