Kansas’ new gun rights law contains provisions meant to clarify that it’s illegal to carry or use a loaded firearm while drunk or under the influence of drugs, changes that its chief legislative sponsor said Thursday represent a significant public safety advance.
But the provisions are drawing scrutiny from the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which says the language is so flawed that it actually will protect most people who use guns while impaired. Jonathan Lowy, who oversees the center’s legal challenges, called the provisions “hidden evils.”
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed the GOP-backed law this week. When it takes effect in July, it will nullify existing local restrictions on guns and ensure that open-carry of firearms outside of public buildings is legal statewide.
It was already a misdemeanor for someone with a state concealed-carry permit to carry a firearm while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. But there wasn’t a law that explicitly extended the same prohibition to other gun owners.
“This provides more safety to our people,” said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, the new legislation’s main sponsor. “We’re clamping down.”
Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief who lobbies for law enforcement groups, said the absence of a law about possessing guns under the influence wasn’t a major issue when cities and counties had broad leeway to regulate firearms. But with the state stripping local regulation, the issue became more compelling – particularly with open carry becoming legal across the state.
“They actually worked with us,” Klumpp said of the bill’s supporters. “We’re comfortable with the language.”
But Lowy said the language is “very strange” and doesn’t represent a significant restriction for possessing a gun under the influence. First, he said, the provisions do not apply if someone uses a firearm in self-defense or to defend another person “if legally justified or excused.”
Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said the law would allow gun owners to defend themselves if they’ve had a drink or two with dinner and are accosted in the parking lot afterward.
Lowy responded, “If you’re intoxicated, you’re much more likely to be shooting innocent bystanders.”
Lowy also said the language is problematic because it says possession or use of a loaded gun is illegal when a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs “to such a degree as to render a personal incapable of safely operating a firearm.”
“If this were the standard for drunk driving, you’d basically have to be asleep at the wheel,” Lowy said.
Howell said the language is designed to mirror drunken driving laws without allowing police officers to harass people simply because they’re carrying a gun. For example, the new law presumes a gun owner is drunk when the blood-alcohol level is 0.08 percent, the same as the standard for drunken driving.
“We worked more on this one provision, probably, than on any other provision,” Howell said.