Guns or star entertainers? Kansas State Fair faces dilemma over weapons screening

What happens when a state’s love of country music clashes with its love of guns?

That’s a question that the Kansas State Fair Board will have to answer in the next few months.

The issue surfaced at a Sept. 7 concert by country music star Billy Currington.

The curly-haired singer/songwriter — with 11 No. 1 country hits to his name — was a great “get” for the fair and the biggest-name entertainer to appear during its 10-day run ending Sunday.

There was just one problem.

Because of concerns over the spate of mass shootings at entertainment events in recent years, Currington’s standard performance contract requires that the venue do at least a bag check for weapons at the door.

But to comply with state law, the fair allows the carrying of guns — open or concealed — by just about anyone who wants to carry one.

That meant the fair had to take the unprecedented step of screening all the concertgoers as they entered the grandstands, said Fair Manager Robin Jennison.

“We’re told by Romeo Entertainment that helped us get our talent that’s a request that’s going to be made (by entertainers) more and more,” Jennison said. “They’ve also told us we’re one of the only places that don’t do bag checks.”

The dilemma facing fair officials is if they want to continue to offer chart-topping acts, they’ll probably have to ban guns at the shows, Jennison said.

“If we want to have that quality of entertainment in Kansas, we may have to do that,” he said. “We may be able to figure out some way to get entertainment that isn’t of that caliber and not have to do it, but it will be something the board will have to talk about.”

Jennison said he won’t advise the 13-member board what to do, but will lay out the options for members and let them decide.

Currington and carrying

Kansas has one of the most permissive statutes in America on gun carrying.

Anyone who can legally own a gun can carry it openly or concealed — no permits or training required — practically anywhere in public, including state facilities such as the fairgrounds, the state Capitol and all public universities.

The main exceptions are private property that’s posted no guns allowed, K-12 school buildings and public facilities such as jails, courthouses and city halls that have metal screening and armed guards.

Jennison said the attorney general’s office told him that if fair security had to screen bags, they couldn’t legally stop at that. They would have to individually screen the concert-goers with metal detectors to comply with state law.

Jennison, a former speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, wasn’t in office when the state’s current law on carrying weapons passed, but he said he personally agrees with it.

“If you’re going to say that somebody can’t carry their handgun in for personal protection, you need to guarantee that nobody else is carrying a gun in either,” he said. “If you just do bag checks, you can’t do that.”

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Everyone who bought a ticket to the Currington concert got an email about the search policy, so no one had to be turned away for guns, Jennison said.

But it did lead to some very long lines and delayed the start of the concert by half an hour.

“That grandstand has so many entrances that we typically use, to do that type of security (using all the gates) we would have needed a lot more guys,” Jennison said.

Complicating matters, concert goers are allowed to bring in food that they buy from vendors on the grounds.

“People coming in, some of them had food in two hands and it really slowed the wanding process down for our security officers,” he said. “There were also, I thought, an inordinate amount of rather large bags. Some people had been out shopping on the midway . . . If this ever happens again, we’re probably going to have to get a little tougher on the type of bags that we handle.”

He said he thought the security guards “did a heck of a job,” considering it was their first time screening patrons at the fair.

Guns at the fair

So how many guns are there at the state fair? No one knows.

Spend time at the fair and you’ll see a few openly carried.

Men in T-shirts with prominent bulges at the waistline are common. So are fanny packs turned around to the front, a popular gun-carrying option for men.

Michael Fleming, a Reno County jail deputy, opted for open carry as he perused the exhibits at the Meadowlark Building with his wife and infant son. Dressed in a T-shirt with a stylized skull and the words “tactical patriot,” he said he doesn’t leave the house without his pistol.

“At any moment in time I want to be able to protect my family,” he said. “I know for a fact I’m not the only one carrying, because I’ve seen 17 other people just in the 30 minutes I’ve been here, open carrying, not including some of the people I know that concealed carry.”

Should guns be allowed at the grandstand concerts? “Depends on the concert,” he said.

In the Sunflower North Building, Jaxon Keimig was carrying a pistol under his T-shirt that said “Stand up for Betsy Ross” with the signature of conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

Although it’s not required to carry concealed, Keimig did go through the training to get a state concealed weapon permit.

“It’s a good thing. I believe it’s for safety,” he said. “We have a legal right to be able to do it and I don’t mind, because you never know what kind of situation you might get into.”

Fleming and Keimig said they had never had to use their firearms in self-defense.

Sign of the times

Wearing a “USA Proud” T-shirt and a hat proclaiming his status as a Navy veteran, William Myers, Jr., said he’s never carried a gun and never been worried about getting shot at the fairgrounds, although he thinks gun carrying could be a deterrent to someone who might want to commit a crime.

But he said he favors keeping the guns out of the concerts.

“The only ones who should have guns at the concerts should be security,” he said. “Because you never know who might be coming to the concert with a gun. They may go off and then there’s going to be a big shootout.”

Not far away, Democratic Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers was celebrating his birthday by handing out cupcakes to fair-goers.

Rogers said he’d rather people didn’t openly carry their guns at the fair.

“The problem with the open carry is you don’t know who the good guy and the bad guy is,” he said. “I do know it causes a lot of concern for a lot of folks. I’m hoping we can soon talk about what’s the right way to handle all that.”

He said he doesn’t have a problem with concealed carry by people who have passed the training and vetting to obtain the optional permit.

“I grew up in a home with a lot of guns and my dad was always concerned how you took care of it and safety was a key issue — never point it at anybody, always making sure it was clean, always doing the right things,” he said. “And I think responsible gun owners are really concerned about those kinds of things.”

Screening the entire fairgrounds for guns would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible, with 11 gates, thousands of visitors and hundreds of cars, pickups, RVs, tractors and trailers coming and going.

Three Fair Board members — Dylan Evans, Harmon Bliss and Bob Atkinson — praised fair security for their handling of the Currington concert and said the need for screening at shows like that is just a sign of the times.

“I really feel like this is a new kind of area that we as a board need to look into more . . . and make sure we do the proper thing to keep the public that comes into the state fair and the people of Kansas safe,” Evans said.

He said as increasing numbers of entertainers request that the audiences be screened, the fair will need to adapt and refine processes for getting people into the grandstand.

“We’re going be able to handle it even better in years to come,” he said.

Atkinson attended the Currington concert. “It got a little late start,” he said. “Everybody got in, had a good time. No big deal.”

Harmon said once people get used to the screening process, they’ll adjust to it.

“It’s just like at K-State football when they started requiring clear bags. It’s just like anything else, it will get smoother over time,” he said. “We want people to be safe.”

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.