Mayor seeks stricter gun law

Amyx wants jail time for carrying firearms near bars

When it comes to bringing guns near downtown bars, there should be no more slaps on the wrist, Mayor Mike Amyx says.

Instead, just the slamming of a jail cell door.

“I think the penalty needs to be pretty stiff,” Amyx said.

Currently, the city has an ordinance that makes it illegal to possess a firearm within 200 feet of a drinking establishment unless the person has a state-issued concealed carry permit. But the city law doesn’t include a mandatory jail sentence. Instead, it gives the municipal court judge the latitude of sentencing a person from zero to 365 days in jail.

At Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, Amyx unexpectedly brought up the idea of stiffening the penalties. Amyx said he wanted commissioners to consider rewriting the ordinance to impose mandatory jail sentences of at least 30 days for a first-time offender, 90 days for a second-time offender, and at least 180 days for people convicted two or more times. In addition, there would be a mandatory fine ranging from $500 to $2,500.

Amyx’s suggestion didn’t spark any conversation at Tuesday night’s meeting because it was not part of the commission’s agenda. But on Thursday it was drawing some favorable opinions from members of the bar industry.

“I think it shows that the city wants to get out ahead of any future problems,” said Phil Bradley, executive director of the Lawrence-based Kansas Licensed Beverage Association, which represents several bars in the city. “I think this is an excellent step, and the city should consider it vigorously.”

Opinions are more mixed among city commissioners. Commissioner Boog Highberger said he wanted to review information on how the current law is being prosecuted, but said that he was open to mandatory jail time.

“I’m not someone who thinks all criminal penalties need to be harsher, but I think this is one instance where we need to send a very clear message,” Highberger said.

Commissioner David Schauner said he might be able to support the mandatory jail time, but said the change wouldn’t be his first choice. Instead, he said he wants the city to create a new entertainment licensing system that city staff members have previously presented to commissioners. It would require businesses that have gathering places of a certain size, such as 200 people or more, to have a special city license. If the businesses created nuisances or other problems, the city could fine the business or revoke its license.

“I think the license would put a responsibility on the owners of doing a better job of policing the crowd and bringing acts to town that may or may not create a problem,” Schauner said.

The city ordinance prohibiting weapons near bars applies to the entire city, but it was crafted in response to several gun-related incidents near downtown bars. Those include a February 2006 shooting that left one man dead outside the Granada, 1020 Mass., after a concert at the nightclub. In May, seven shots were fired inside Last Call, 729 N.H., sending 200 people fleeing to the street. Lawrence police officers also have reported seizing about 20 weapons – including assault-style firearms – during the past several months.

Court changes

Regardless of whether city commissioners change the ordinance, City Prosecutor Jerry Little said some changes in how gun violations are prosecuted in Municipal Court already have been made.

Little said that earlier this year, he and his staff decided that they would no longer offer plea deals on gun charges that come through the court.

“We’re taking a much harder approach on getting those prosecuted so that the community is much safer,” Little said.

Little also said that Municipal Court Judge Randy McGrath has indicated that he will require all people charged with a gun violation to go through a pre-sentencing investigation to determine whether the individual has a prior criminal record. People found to have a criminal record could be subject to more jail time.

Little said that he thought the possibility of jail time ultimately could serve as a deterrent, although perhaps not immediately.

“A lot of the people we’re talking about don’t live here,” Little said. “They probably don’t know our laws, and I don’t think they’re reading the newspaper. They’ll probably learn about it the hard way. Hopefully, though, word would start to get out about how we’re handling things here.”

City Manager David Corliss said he expects to put the issue on the City Commission’s agenda in mid-March.

Corliss: ABC help unlikely with nuisance bars

The city likely won’t be able to turn to state regulators for help in shutting down bars that are causing nuisance or violence problems in the community, City Manager David Corliss said Thursday.

Corliss said after discussing the issue with the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control division, he’s convinced the city likely would not be successful in convincing the ABC to revoke a license of a problem bar unless the bar was specifically violating liquor-related laws.

“They’re not going to be helpful to us in regard to nuisance problems that occur outside the drinking establishment,” Corliss said.

City commissioners in January had asked Corliss to investigate whether the ABC would be helpful in dealing with bars that have generated complaints of weapons-related crimes.

Commissioners have not specifically targeted a particular bar that they would like to have shut down, but there has been community concern expressed about weapons violations found near Last Call, 729 N.H.

Many of the weapons violations, however, have not happened inside the club but have occurred in parking lots owned by the city or other adjacent businesses.On Thursday, Corliss also did not target any particular establishment, but said the city was still looking at options for dealing with problem bars.

“We’re looking at whether to pursue some other legal options that I don’t want to talk about right now,” Corliss said.

Corliss also said the city still was investigating a city licensing system that would regulate businesses that provide entertainment services such as dancing and live music.

Attempts to reach Tom Groneman, director of the ABC, for comment were not successful. Attempts to reach Dennis Steffes, owner of Last Call, also were not successful.