Topeka Legislative leaders on Thursday tacitly agreed to allow people with permits to carry concealed handguns into the Statehouse.
The Legislative Coordinating Council — a group of Republican and Democratic leaders from both chambers — met Thursday and, by not taking action to prohibit concealed weapons in the building, according to a law passed in 2013, the group effectively agreed to allow them.
"Those who carry concealed, they feel like that's an enhanced measure for the safety of everyone, and we agree with that," said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. "There will be no one in the Capitol who doesn't have a license to carry. A license to carry requires a background check and education."
During the 2013 session, lawmakers passed a bill that requires most government buildings, except public schools, to allow people with licenses to carry concealed weapons, unless the governing body determines the building has adequate security to prevent anyone, licensed or not, from bringing in a weapon.
The final version of the bill passed both chambers with strong bipartisan support: 32-7 in the Senate and 104-16 in the House. Both Democratic leaders in the Legislature, Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence and Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka, voted in favor of it.
The law gives state colleges and universities a four-year exemption before they have to decide on a policy, allowing them time to develop security plans for their campuses. Cities and counties were also given the option of applying for four-year exemptions while they develop new security plans.
Both Douglas County and the city of Lawrence have taken advantage of that provision, but many others have simply decided to allow concealed carry in their public buildings.
The bill also allowed an exemption for the state capitol until July 1, 2014, unless the Legislative Coordinating Council determined that the building had adequate security to prevent anyone from bringing weapons into the building.
Capt. Jimmie Atkinson, commander of the Kansas Capitol Police, told the legislative panel that security in the Statehouse has been greatly enhanced in recent months. That has involved hiring additional officers, updating security protocols to prevent unauthorized people from entering the building except through the security checkpoint at the public entrance and changing parking regulations on the Statehouse grounds.
Responding to questions from reporters about why visitors would feel a need to carry concealed weapons in the Capitol, Wagle said it didn't matter because they have a right to do so.
"Why should we allow it in one public facility and not another," she asked.
Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick said he didn't think allowing some people to carry concealed weapons in the Statehouse should make other visitors uncomfortable.
Merrick and Wagle at LCC
"I'm uncomfortable with people being here for other reasons," he said. "There are a lot of red shirts around here."
Kansas National Education Association members wore red T-shirts and crowded the halls of the Statehouse during the final days of the 2014 session, demonstrating against a bill that passed, stripping them of tenure rights.
Thursday evening, however, Merrick's spokeswoman Rachel Witten called the Journal-World to say that Merrick's comments were not about the teachers' union members but that the comment was a "term of art" that referred to the British during the Revolutionary War.
"I think it can be boiled down to the fact that we should have our ability to protect ourselves," Whitten said.
The new policy on guns in the Statehouse takes effect July 1.