Topeka Fresh off a series of legislative victories across the nation, the National Rifle Association has launched a new effort starting in gun-friendly Kansas seeking to clamp down on the use of government money to lobby on gun-control issues.
While it’s not clear how the law would be enforced considering it includes no penalties for violators, critics argue the measure threatens to stifle debate and give the state government far more control over a local government’s message.
For instance, would university presidents — now confronted with a new Kansas law to allow concealed-carry weapons on campuses — be able to travel on university time and salary to argue against the rule? Or, could a government agency even print a pamphlet about gun safety without running afoul of the law?
“It does raise these questions about one side or the other becoming so dominant that it can close off opposing views,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president for the nonpartisan First Amendment Center, based at Vanderbilt University.
The Kansas law that takes effect next month also prohibits the use of state dollars for “publicity or propaganda,” distributing materials or advertising. Although it imposes the same restrictions on both sides of the debate, gun-rights advocates pressed so much for it in the recently concluded legislative session that it was known inside the Statehouse as “the NRA bill.”
For the NRA and other gun-rights advocates, the lobbying law is a good-government measure that prevents precious state dollars from being put to political use and another symbol of Kansas’ commitment to gun-ownership rights.
“People are going to look to Kansas,” said Brent Gardner, an NRA liaison who lobbies in four states, including Kansas. “People are starting to see a number of states becoming leaders in firearms rights.”
Gardner said Kansas is the first state to enact a law restricting the use of state dollars on lobbying or other forms of advocacy specifically on gun-control issues, though legislators in Arizona and Wisconsin also have expressed an interest. The National Conference of State Legislatures hadn’t heard of activity on the topic, and the idea is so novel that even the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said it didn’t know enough about the law to comment on it.
The immediate effect of the law is unclear, particularly considering conservatives encountered little resistance this year in pushing through the Legislature two measures broadly expanding the rights of gun owners. One loosens the restrictions on permit holders for carrying concealed guns into local government and state-run college buildings. The other flatly declares the federal government has no power to regulate firearms, ammunition and accessories manufactured, sold and kept in the state.
Opposition in Lawrence and elsewhere
In the city of Lawrence, home to Kansas University, officials are frustrated over the concealed weapons law, and Mayor Mike Dever said the lobbying restriction could hamper local officials who want to change state or federal policies.
“It kinds of creates an interesting dilemma for local government agencies, when they feel strongly about something and have to be careful,” Dever said.
The western Kansas town of Hays has its own lobbyist in the Kansas Statehouse. Although Mayor Kent Steward said he isn’t particularly troubled by the new gun laws, he is concerned about the precedent it sends if the state government can restrict a local government’s lobbying on a divisive issue.
“Anytime government starts getting into the area of limiting speech, it sends up a red flag,” he said. “ ... The best course may be, if you find one thing that’s distasteful, you may do better to put up with it.”
Expanding the limitation
Supporters said the bill is similar to past restrictions imposed by Congress on using federal funds for lobbying or political activities, and that small-government, conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature have wanted for years to impose broad restrictions on local governments and school districts using their state dollars to hire Statehouse lobbyists.
All of those previous attempts failed, largely because their prohibitions were so broad that lawmakers found it too politically difficult to impose a blanket ban. This year, lawmakers started with a broader proposal to ban government advocacy but soon faced questions about whether it would hinder such things as efforts to decrease tobacco use.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said he viewed the lobbying ban on guns as the most that could get approved this year, but he said he’d like to expand the effort in the future.
Civil libertarians and some local officials are nervous the ban could eventually be extended to other issues, such as abortion, immigration or even increased funding for public schools. They contend it’s an assault on free-speech rights that hinders some officials’ ability to represent their constituents.
“Certainly, the issue is likely to come back,” said Mark Tallman, an associate executive director and lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “Is it a precedent to be concerned about? Of course it is.”
State Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said Kansans see the Second Amendment as a “fundamental core” of their rights.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue,” he said. “This is an issue of using taxpayer dollars.”
The law does include an exception to the lobbying ban for “normal and recognized executive and legislative relationships.” Shawn Naccarato, a Pittsburg State University official who lobbies at the state capitol, said he thinks that clause protects him. If not, he said, it would be almost impossible to calculate how much time he dedicates to a specific issue.
But backers of the measure are worried about more than lobbying.
They cite the state health department’s association with Safe Kids, an alliance of groups concerned about child safety that endorses “efforts at the national level to restrict new sales of assault weapons.” Two Safe Kids coordinators work in an office out of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which also has a link to the organization on its website.
Gardner said the gun owners don’t want their tax dollars spent on such activities. The health department said state dollars aren’t involved and the two employees’ jobs are financed with federal dollars.
Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, called the new law “odd.”
“Is this really a problem?” he said.