Depending on your point of view, citizens of Wichita are now better protected by the U.S. Constitution or they are in greater danger from folks toting guns.
Either way, after a prolonged emotional debate Tuesday, the City Council voted 4-3 to allow people permits to carry handguns in 111 city-owned buildings.
“Some people wanted to be out of compliance with the state and U.S. Constitution,” council member Michael O’Donnell said. “That’s not my style.”
Just before the vote was taken and it was apparent the motion would pass, Mayor Carl Brewer said, “Today is a sad day for this City Council that we allow some special interest group to do this. Let me apologize to the citizens right now for not allowing you to have a voice or give your input.”
O’Donnell was joined by James Clendenin, Jeff Longwell and Pete Meitzner in voting to allow concealed carry in the selected buildings out of the 390 that are owned by the city. Along with Brewer, Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams voted against.
The move comes about four months after the Sedgwick County Commission decided to open about 80 of its more than 100 buildings to concealed carry. Prior to these decisions, those with permits weren’t allowed to take their guns inside any buildings owned by the city and county.
The change is effective immediately. But it will take two to three weeks to get the signs prohibiting guns scraped off the entrances of the 111 buildings, said Joe Pajor, assistant director of public works and utilities.
Places where the concealed weapons will now be allowed include 82 park and recreation sites, 19 fire department buildings, four public works and utilities buildings and five parking garages. Among the places where concealed-carry guns won’t be allowed include anywhere the City Council meets, such as City Hall.
“I think it’s hypocritical to say, ‘Sure, we’re good with guns being allowed in other public buildings, (but) not the ones where we meet,’ ” Miller said. “That, I think, is shameful in addition to being embarrassing.”
Later O’Donnell responded: “If you’re saying it’s hypocritical to exclude City Hall, we can make a motion to include City Hall.”
At the request of O’Donnell, a committee of city officials drew up a list of buildings where concealed carry would be allowed under state guidelines. The state passed a concealed-carry law in 2006, and more than 37,000 permits have been issued since then.
Brewer charged that O’Donnell’s efforts, similar to the one led by Commissioner Richard Ranzau in getting some county buildings opened to concealed carry, was driven by a special-interest group that wants the state legislature to loosen its laws on where those with gun permits are allowed.
“It’s not about the Constitution,” he said. “It’s about a special-interest group that has inserted itself on this council. They want to take it to Topeka, so they can tell legislatures, ‘This is what Wichita and Sedgwick County are doing, you should pass it.’ That’s what this is all about.”
After the meeting, O’Donnell said, “I’ve never been approached by special-interest groups whatsoever. I’m completely dumbfounded by that accusation. I’m not trying to push an agenda. I’m just trying to put us in compliance with state law.”
Later he acknowledged that the city was “technically” complying with state law. The state’s law sets general guidelines, but a city can elect to be more restrictive.
The council first discussed the issue at a workshop on Oct. 25. At the time, there appeared to be a commitment to holding four town hall meetings for broader public input before it was put on the council agenda.
But those public meetings have never been held. Williams said she opted not to have Deputy Police Chief Nelson Mosley discuss concealed carry at her district advisory board meeting because she thought the topic was being reviewed further by city officials.
“I’d like to know why we’re not taking this out for public comment,” she said. “We’re making a law for the city, not for 30 or 40 or 50 people. Give the community an opportunity.”
Brewer said, “It’s not going out to the community for discussion because members of the council don’t want it to go out. Let’s be honest.”
Clendenin said no one was keeping the public from speaking at the council. No one from the public asked to speak on the topic Tuesday.
Early in Tuesday’s discussion, it became clear that O’Donnell wanted to bring the issue to a vote.
“I don’t want to proverbially kick the can down the road,” he said.
Miller questioned the claim that people are safer when those with permits are allowed to carry their guns into buildings. She cited studies that said trained police only hit their intended targets 20 to 50 percent of the time.
“How good do we think Joe, who is packing heat, is going to be?” she asked.
And so the tension continued.
“I absolutely felt the tension,” O’Donnell said. “But what I feel more than anything is I’m an American and I’m going to abide by the constitution of the United States, and the Second Amendment that allows us the opportunity to bear arms.”