Kansas lawmakers consider bill to expand gun rights

TOPEKA — Influential gun rights groups are pushing proposals in Kansas to strip cities and counties of any power to restrict the open carrying of firearms or regulate guns, telling legislators Thursday that a muddle of local rules confuses firearms owners and infringes upon their civil liberties.

The Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee began two days of hearings on a bill ensuring that the open carrying of firearms is allowed statewide, prohibiting cities and counties from regulating gun and ammunition sales, and voiding existing local ordinances. The measure also prohibits cities and counties from using tax dollars to administer gun buyback programs and prevents local governments from regulating the carrying of knives, even in public buildings.

The committee hasn’t set a date for debating the bill, but it and the Republican-dominated Legislature are supportive of gun rights measures, as is GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. Lobbyists for both the National Rifle Association and the Kansas State Rifle Association testified in favor of the bill.

This year’s bill follows a string of victories for gun rights advocates. Legislators last year rewrote the state’s concealed carry law to allow permit holders to carry their weapons into more public buildings and passed a law declaring that the federal government has no power to regulate guns sold and kept only in Kansas. Also, Kansas enacted what’s believed to be the first law in the nation banning the use of state tax dollars on lobbying or even “publicity or propaganda” on gun issues.

But Patricia Stoneking, the state association’s president, said gun owners still face varying local regulations on transporting and carrying their firearms as they travel across the state. Kansas law permits the open carrying of guns, but allows cities and counties to impose regulations, and at least a few have banned the practice.

“Not a day goes by that our office doesn’t receive calls from people who are confused about the law, who are given conflicting information by various municipalities as to what the law is,” Stoneking told the committee. “I think it’s time that we really set this to rest.”

One provision of the bill would prevent local government agencies from asking their employees whether they have concealed carry permits and whether they intend to carry their weapons with them on the job. It’s a reaction to a new policy in the city of Wichita that requires employees to say whether they intend to carry concealed.

Rep. Jim Howell, a Derby Republican who is the bill’s main legislative sponsor, said he wants to protect local government employees from being fired, disciplined or discriminated against because they have concealed carry permits.

And, he added, “What I want to have is statewide uniformity and statewide clarity.”

But groups representing cities and counties and some local government officials oppose the measure, particularly because of the provision dealing with public employees. Opponents note that private companies can ban concealed weapons from their premises and set policies preventing workers from carrying on the job.

“We think public and private (employees) should be treated equally,” said Melissa Wangemann, lobbyist and general counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties. “Employers will want to know if employees are carrying.”

And Mike Taylor, a lobbyist for the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County, questioned whether allowing the universal open carrying of firearms would be safe. The Unified Government bans it.

“In a western Kansas town, a farming community, if you see a guy come in from the fields, and he has a .22 on his hip, you probably don’t think much about it,” Taylor said. “But if you’re in an urban area, an inner-city neighborhood, where you know there are street gangs, drug dealers, and you see somebody with a TEC-9 strapped on their hip, hanging out on the corner where we know drugs are being sold, that’s a little bit different issue.”