TOPEKA Kansas lawmakers bucked the National Rifle Association by approving a measure meant to keep concealed guns out of hospitals — a testament to how much the Republican-controlled Legislature shifted to the left in last year's elections.
The state has been a testing ground for gun-rights advocates' favored policies, but the Legislature was able to rewrite Kansas' 2013 concealed carry law because voters upset with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's allies ousted two dozen conservatives and gave Democrats and GOP moderates more power.
The action also shows that even some conservatives who normally vote with the NRA paid particular attention to the concerns of the University of Kansas Health System, which sought the change.
"I'm more interested in health care and economics than I am in my NRA rating," Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican, told his colleagues during debate.
Like other health care facilities, the University of Kansas Health System faced a July 1 deadline to make potentially expensive security upgrades or to allow concealed guns, as required under the 2013 law. That law said gun owners could bring their concealed weapons into public buildings that don't have "adequate" security such as guards and metal detectors, but it gave universities, public hospitals and other health care facilities four years to comply.
The NRA and other gun-rights advocates pushed for a narrower bill, applying to fewer institutions and only in areas restricted to the general public, arguing that a broader restriction would prevent people from protecting themselves during a criminal attack.
"We agree that are some areas that are more sensitive and those facilities may want to keep guns out," said NRA lobbyist Travis Couture-Lovelady, a former Kansas House member. "We were willing to provide certain flexibility within the law."
To be sure, Democrats and some GOP moderates wanted an even broader bill with a permanent exemption for universities. But the passage of the more limited bill still breaks a long string of legislative victories for the NRA and other gun-rights advocates since Brownback took office in January 2011.
Another 2013 law forbade the use of government money to lobby on gun issues, and the following year, lawmakers stripped cities and counties of their power to regulate guns. A 2015 law ended a requirement that gun owners obtain a state permit to carry concealed.
Brownback has not said whether he'll sign or veto the bill approved by legislators. But lawmakers on both sides acknowledged that it wouldn't have passed at all last year.
"We wouldn't even have had the hearing," said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Overland Park Republican. "The effort never would have been made."
Legislators felt compelled to revisit concealed carry laws this year after Brownback proposed having his cash-strapped state spend $24 million over two years to upgrade security at the state's two mental hospitals and its two hospitals for the developmentally disabled. Lawmakers balked at the expense, but most also weren't ready to allow guns at mental institutions.
A key player was the University of Kansas Health System, which estimated one-time expenses at $5 million and annual security costs at $27 million.
Backers of the bill said the law put the system in a tough spot: Allow concealed guns and risk losing world-class staff or install airport-like security that would have patients and families waiting in like to get into the Kansas City, Kansas, hospital.
"They do their research, and none of the other hospitals that we compete with on that national stage have this same — they don't allow guns," said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat.