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Archive for Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Historic Douglas County Courthouse may have to adapt to new gun law

November 19, 2013

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Douglas County officials may have to sacrifice some of the historic character of Lawrence's century-old county courthouse to comply with the state's new concealed carry gun law.

"That is one of the special challenges of this building," County Administrator Craig Weinaug said today after a closed-door special meeting with county commissioners to discuss security arrangements.

Commissioners met to discuss a security plan that, if approved, could qualify the county for a four-year exemption from the new law. That would give the county until Jan. 1, 2018, to add features such as a security desk, metal detectors and X-ray machines to screen visitors and ensure that no one is carrying a weapon into the building.

Under the new law, cities and counties must either do that or allow anyone with a valid permit to carry concealed weapons into their public buildings.

All three Douglas County commissioners have criticized that law, which took effect July 1. Before it took effect, though, the county took advantage of a provision allowing for a six-month extension to develop a plan for securing its buildings.

The county now has until Dec. 31 to submit a plan to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office detailing how it intends to provide such security.

Commissioners took no action after their closed-door meeting today. But Weinaug said if they intended to submit the plan, they would have to vote in public to do so, probably within the next few weeks.

Even then, however, the plan itself will not be open to the public because the new law specifically exempts such plans from the Kansas Open Records Act.

In addition to the courthouse at 1100 Massachusetts St., such a plan would also have to ensure security at the Zoning and Codes Department office and County Treasurer's satellite office west of 27th and Iowa, the new Public Works facility to be developed along East 25th Street, and possibly other buildings as well.

The Judicial and Law Enforcement Center and the county jail already have security and visitor screening that would meet the requirements of the law, county officials have said.

But it's the historic courthouse that could pose the biggest design challenges and most visible changes for the public.

Dennis Brown, chairman of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, said he would be concerned about any major alterations to the courthouse. But he said he understands the county's challenge.

"It seems to me the state is using the threat of extraordinary costs to force concealed carry onto communities that might not want it," he said.

Completed around 1905, the courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is notable in part for its Romanesque-style architecture.

Currently, there are three public entrances to the building: the main east and west doorways, which provide stairway access to the main floor; and a handicapped-accessible entrance on the north side of the building, which leads into the basement.

In order to prohibit guns in a municipal building, the law requires the agency controlling the building to have "adequate security measures" at all public access entrances to ensure that nobody can carry a weapon inside. It also requires having gun lockers or other storage facilities for storing "lawfully carried weapons."

That means the county would either have to install security devices at all three entrances or, more likely, close off the two main entrances and direct all public traffic through the basement-level accessible entrance.

The Hutchinson News reported this week that Barton County in south-central Kansas has opted to allow concealed carry weapons into its courthouse because commissioners there found the cost of providing security too steep.

Melissa Wangemann, general counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties, noted that others, including Sedgwick County, have discussed allowing concealed carry in some public buildings but closing off only its county courthouse.

But that isn't likely to be the case in Douglas County.

"Our chief concern in all this is the safety of our employees and the safety of the public when they enter our buildings," Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan said.

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