Kansas Statehouse visitors could soon bring handguns

06/18/2014 9:50 AM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

Visitors to the Kansas Statehouse will be able to bring a concealed handgun beginning July 1 if they have a permit, unless a committee of legislative leaders decides before then to keep the Capitol’s current security measures.

Last year the Legislature passed a bill to make it legal to carry a concealed weapon in public buildings unless they are equipped with metal detectors and security guards. That law, which has already gone into effect in municipalities across the state, also applies to the Capitol and would take effect July 1.

That is unless the Legislative Coordinating Council, which is chaired by House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, determines that the Capitol has adequate security measures.

The statute gives the council a short window between June 1, 2014, and July 1, 2014, to make this determination. If it does nothing, it will become legal for visitors to carry a concealed firearm in the Capitol effective July 1, the Office of Revisor of Statutes confirmed.

The council has a meeting scheduled for Thursday; the issue was not on the agenda as of Wednesday morning, Merrick’s spokeswoman, Rachel Whitten, said. She added the agenda had not been finalized.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a member of the council, said he thought the Capitol already had adequate security measures.

The front entrance has metal detectors and security officers from the Kansas Highway Patrol standing guard. All other entrances require a key card to enter.

The Kansas Highway Patrol said it has no position on the policy, but that if the council holds a meeting to review security, it would provide testimony about the measures currently in place.

Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, who carried the bill on the House floor last year, said he believes there are gaps in the Capitol’s security and that allowing permit holders to bring in their weapons would make the building safer.

“If a bad guy wanted to bring a gun into that building, could it happen?” Howell said in a phone call. Because entrances that require keycards do not have security cameras, a gunmen could sneak into the building behind a Capitol employee, he said. “That’s a breach of our security. So could a bad guy walk in that door with a gun? Absolutely.”

Visitors to the Capitol with a concealed carry license should have the right to bring in a gun for self defense, he said.

“I’m not worried about the guys with concealed carry licenses. I’ve never been worried about them. The ones we need to worry about are the guys who are not licensed, who are concealing their firearm for some reason, and would walk in there apparently with some sinister intent,” Howell said.

Lawmakers and Capitol employees are already able to bring in their weapons to the building, he said, and it is unfair not to extend that right to the general public.

Howell is leaving the Legislature to run for a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission. That means if he returns to building next year, it will be as a citizen. “And I would like to be able to protect myself,” he said.

The Statehouse gets about 150 visitors a day, according to the Capitol Visitors Center. During the legislative session, that number increases to between 400 to 500 people.

Skyler Estes, a mother of four children who visited the Capitol with her family on Wednesday, did not have a strong opinion about the change either way.

“I don’t know if it would change safety,” said Estes, a Topeka resident.

She reasoned that if people had obtained a concealed carry permit, they could be trusted to handle their guns responsibly, but she saw a potential drawback. “I think it’s going to make more work for security,” she said. She worried that if guards have to check permits it could create longer lines to enter the Capitol.

Concealed carry permit holders do not have the same level of safety training as law enforcement officers, said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Malte said allowing concealed carry in public buildings increases risks rather than safety.

“Loaded, hidden guns carried in places where families and children gather is not appropriate, and we feel is a danger to public safety and makes law enforcement’s job a lot harder,” Malte said.

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