A security guard at the Kansas Statehouse mans metal detectors and x-ray machines, checking visitors who pass through the entrance, even though Kansas law now allows virtually any adult to carry concealed weapons into the building. Officials say the security measures also screen for other illegal items.
TOPEKA — When visitors come to the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, they now enter through a single public entrance where they have to walk through metal detectors and have their bags and briefcases x-rayed by security staff.
But if anyone were to come into the building hiding a loaded handgun in a jacket or under a belt, there is almost nothing that the security staff could do about it.
That’s because, at about the same time those security devices were being installed, the Kansas Legislature enacted new laws making them all but obsolete.
Today, it is perfectly legal for almost anyone in Kansas to carry concealed, loaded handguns in public and in most state-owned buildings. And one of the new laws enacted just this year says those people don’t even need a permit or specific gun safety training to do it.
“The way the new law reads, you can carry a concealed weapon in there as long as you meet state and federal standards,” said Capt. Andy Dean, supervisor of the Capitol Police division within the Kansas Highway Patrol, which manages security at the Statehouse and other state office buildings in Topeka.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, says the law is rooted in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights of the Kansas Constitution, which afford citizens the right to bear arms as a matter of self defense.
“Criminal citizens, they don’t follow any restrictions, so the only people that we put restrictions on are the law-abiding citizens that could be a deterrent to the crime,” he said.
But Dean and other security officials said that policy is cause for concern, although they insist the Statehouse is still safe and secure.
The scenario they worry about, they said, is that of an “active shooter” incident in which other people who are legally carrying concealed guns pull them out and use them for self defense.
When law enforcement officers arrive at that kind of scene, security officials say, they won’t have time to ask questions about who fired first, and which person is the criminal.Their job will be to take out anybody holding a gun who is not a law enforcement officer.
“That’s the unfortunate side of it,” Dean said. “As law enforcement, we’re going to have to identify the threat. That’s difficult if you have multiple people who are armed. It could be a potential issue you could run into.”
Brunk said those are legitimate concerns, but he said they’re not enough to justify discarding people’s constitutional right to carry firearms.
“It comes down to, at what point do we thwart the Constitution because of a potential concern that may or may not materialize,” he said. “Our oath of office was to uphold and obey the Constitution, and so we see the Second Amendment as something that is an inherent right granted by the Constitution of the United States.”
Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat, said he thinks allowing concealed weapons in the Statehouse is a bad idea.
“Whether its in the Capitol or anywhere else, I don’t think it is a good idea to allow people to carry loaded, hidden weapons without a state-issued permit, which requires them to pass a criminal background check and participate in a reasonable amount of training,” he said.
Expanding gun rights
Since 2013, Kansas lawmakers have enacted a series of new laws that have dramatically expanded the right of people to carry concealed weapons. The first law, enacted that year, allowed people to carry concealed weapons if they obtained a permit and passed a gun safety course.
That law also gave private businesses, local governments, and the state itself, the option of exempting themselves from the law, as long as they posted standard “no guns” signs at their public entrances.
But for the statehouse itself, the power to exercise that option was given to the Legislative Coordinating Council, a group of the top eight leaders of both parties from the Kansas House and Senate. But the law gave the LCC only one year to exercise that option, and last June, the group allowed that deadline to expire without taking action.
“Part of that was because the building was under renovation,” Brunk said. “When it went to a conference committee, one of the members on the committee over in the Senate, who’s no longer in the Senate, wouldn’t sign off on any legislation one way or the other as the building was being renovated and accesses were being limited.”
In 2014, lawmakers went even further, passing a law prohibiting local governments, except school districts, from enacting local gun control laws, and requiring them to allow concealed carry in their own municipal buildings by 2018, unless they could provide enough security to ensure that nobody – either a criminal or law-abiding citizen – could get a weapon into the building.
And this year, they went further still, making Kansas one of only five states that now allows both concealed and open carry of firearms, and repealing the requirement that they obtain a permit to do so.
This year’s gun bill passed both chambers by wide, even bipartisan margins: 85-39 in the House; 31-8 in the Senate.
All four House members and both senators from Lawrence voted against the bill.
But some lawmakers say that’s not a reflection of how popular the issue is, but rather of the power of both the Kansas and National Rifle Associations in Kansas elections.
“They either are concerned about the political power of the NRA influencing elections, or they have issues they’d like to be in office to work on, and this wasn’t the issue they want to fall on their swords for, if you will,” Rep. Wilson said. “There’s an enormous amount of power that the NRA and the Kansas Rifle Association have outside the building, in campaign seasons, that’s the real problem.”
But Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican, said he thinks most lawmakers who support gun rights legislation are sincere about it.
“I voted for concealed carry originally,” Sloan said. “My objection is to carrying a weapon without the appropriate training about safety, and when and where you can or cannot fire a weapon, about what is self defense. … That concerns me.”
Both, however, said they have confidence in the security staff at the Statehouse, and they still feel safe in the building.
“I feel safe in the Capitol, and I don’t think I will ever feel unsafe,” Wilson said. “But I don’t think it sets the most welcoming environment for visitors, allowing open carry with no background checks.”
Capt. Dean of the Capitol Police said the public should feel safe too.
“We are always mindful of the safety and security of the people that visit, and the employees in the building,” he said.