July 27, 2012

Group aims to reverse open-carry firearms law in Wichita

On Thursday, it became legal for the first time in decades to strap on a holster and a firearm in Wichita, carrying it openly without a permit.

On Thursday, it became legal for the first time in decades to strap on a holster and a firearm in Wichita, carrying it openly without a permit.

And today, a group of city officials and business owners are looking for a way to reverse that city ordinance.

“I’m not going to live in Tombstone,” Wichita Vice Mayor Janet Miller said.

The city’s new open carry laws are a classic case of a state mandate, city officials say: Wichita’s city firearms ordinance, which prohibited the open display of a loaded firearm, has been in conflict with – or in legal terms, pre-empting – a firearms statute passed by the Kansas Legislature for more than four years.

Until now city ordinance has allowed people to carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit, but has prohibited people from wearing or carrying weapons in plain sight.

Kansas Sen. Dick Kelsey, a gun advocate with a legislative endorsement from the National Rifle Association, chuckled at the furor.

“We’re talking about a non-issue here,” Kelsey said. “We’re not headed back to Tombstone.”

Kelsey doesn’t expect a proliferation of unconcealed weapons in Wichita. In fact, he said he’ll be surprised if he sees more than a few.

“Ask the concealed carry permit holders how often they carry,” he said. “The answer is, they don’t very often. I have two sons with permits and they don’t carry often. Non-issue here.”

The conflict was discovered a year ago by city officials, who asked Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt for an opinion whether the city can prohibit the carrying of unconcealed weapons under the 2007 state law.

In December, Schmidt said no, said Sharon Dickgrafe, the deputy city attorney. So earlier this month, under an agenda item titled “unlawful use of weapons,” the Wichita City Council quietly and largely without discussion signed off on the new open carry law, saying its hands are tied by the 2007 law.

And then some council members, upset that the city is bound by a state law they call too liberal on the gun issue, set about trying to figure out how to change it.

“I think we need to go back and do two things,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “Be out of compliance and be more restrictive, which I believe we can be. Or do we lobby the state? There could be some of that.

“We’ve got some questions to ask and figure out.”

The change has upset some business owners, despite a clear state law and city ordinance that gives any shop operator the right to ban concealed and unconcealed weapons. Warren Theatres president Bill Warren is irate, and pledged this week that he will not allow anyone with an unconcealed gun in his theaters. He will, however, permit concealed carry permitted guns.

The law change is no big deal at Wichita State University, where guns are outlawed on campus. It will have no affect on how the university administers athletic events, said Brad Pittman, the associate athletic director for facilities and operations.

“Now, will people understand that? Maybe or maybe not,” Pittman said. “But if they show up with a gun to one of our events, we’re going to ask them to take it to their vehicle.”

Even some gun shop owners are upset, saying unconcealed weapons could have a chilling effect on customer traffic there and at other businesses around town. While people have to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, there is no permit required to openly display a weapon.

“My personal opinion – not for the store – is I’m not in favor of this at all,” said Donnie Holman, who manages the Bullet Stop, 2625 W. Pawnee. “No training whatsoever. Buy a gun, buy a holster, out the door without any experience. It’s a big mistake.”

Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz agreed.

“We don’t make the laws,” Stolz said. “We enforce them, and we work for the people. The council represents the people.

“I don’t want to get into a Second Amendment debate here. We fully support it. But it’s how we empower and train people, and how we treat the Second Amendment that gets controversial.”

Stolz said Holman is right: Unconcealed weapons will be perceived as a threat by much of the Wichita public.

“There’s a huge difference between concealed and unconcealed,” Stolz said. “This puts the weapon in plain view in a threatening position for a normal person. In today’s society, it’s a threatening sight for people and law enforcement officers.”

The latter is a huge concern to Stolz, who said the new open carry law will inevitably escalate confrontations that require a police response.

“Put yourself in the shoes of an officer, a sheriff’s deputy, a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper,” he said. “You roll up on a call and you see a couple of people with guns drawn on each other and you’re coming in as (a response to) a general disturbance.

“Officers are trained to protect life, and they see this happening and they don’t know who’s the good or bad guy. Yet they’re facing split-second decisions. It’s a recipe that is going to be extremely challenging for law enforcement.”

Miller said she hopes the council will request a thorough review of its options to overturn open carry.

“I don’t have any sense at all that this is what the public wants,” she said. “I’d hope we can find four votes on the bench to take another look at this.”

Dickgrafe said the city’s policy is to comply with state laws. However, Schmidt’s opinion isn’t binding in a court, she said.

“But certainly courts tend to give those heavy weight in analyzing the pre-emption issue,” she said.

Nonetheless, Dickgrafe said her office could take a serious look at Longwell’s list of options.

And maybe they should, Holman said.

“People are going to be more apprehensive, no question about it,” he said. “People see a guy with a gun when they walk into a store, they’re not going in and they might not come back.”

Why gun-toters would put themselves in that position escapes Holman.

“What good reason do you have for someone to know you’ve got a gun?” he asked. “You’re making yourself a target. Why put more stress on the cops than they have already? They’re more on edge, and there’s a lot of that going on already.”

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