Topeka An effort to block part of the state’s new law on concealed firearms in public facilities stalled Tuesday when a sharply divided Senate voted to send the bill back to committee.
The bill would have exempted state and municipally owned hospitals from either having to allow people to carry concealed firearms in those facilities or provide adequate security so that no one could bring guns into those buildings starting July 1.
The bill also would have applied to the University of Kansas hospital in Kansas City, Kan., as well as municipally owned hospitals and mental health centers such as Lawrence Memorial Hospital and the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
The bill had come out of the Senate budget committee in response to Gov. Sam Brownback’s request for an additional $25 million over two years to provide security at the four state psychiatric hospitals in Osawatomie, Parsons, Larned and Topeka. The administration has since lowered that cost estimate to $12.5 million.
But early in the debate Tuesday, gun rights supporters led by Sen. Ed Berger, R-Hutchinson, amended the bill so that the four state psychiatric hospitals would be required to allow anyone except patients with valid permits to carry concealed firearms in those facilities. That meant money still would be needed to add security at those hospitals.
Supporters of that amendment, and of the law scheduled to take effect July 1, argued that under current law, the only thing preventing someone from bringing a gun into public facilities is a sign telling them not to.
“A sign is a welcome mat to criminals,” Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said. “Criminals are not going to be deterred by a sign, but instead encouraged by it.”
Opponents, however, argued that with a law in place prohibiting guns in those places, people who violate the law can face penalties.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, compared the state psychiatric hospitals to state prisons, where even guards are not allowed to carry guns, except those in guard towers.
“For very good reason,” she said. “If a guard were to be overtaken, they would be able to take the gun off of the guard and use that inside of that facility. People that go to our state hospitals generally have been determined to be unstable individuals. Otherwise they would go to outpatient treatments or some other psychiatric care in their community. Once you’re at a state hospital, you’re generally in a very critical crisis situation, and I just don’t think that it is a good idea to have guns inside of that facility for that reason.”
The amendment was approved on a vote of 21-19.
After that, Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, offered an amendment to expand the bill so that college and university campuses would be permanently exempt from the requirement to allow concealed firearms. That sparked more debate over the question of whether laws banning guns in public places actually deter people from carrying guns.
Bollier, a retired physician, argued that guns pose a particular danger on college campuses that are populated by young adults going through stressful times in their lives.
“More guns equals more suicides,” Bollier said.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, spoke in favor of that amendment, and he responded to the argument that words on a piece of paper do not deter people from committing crimes.
“There is a piece of paper that I think has stopped many bullets and swords, and that’s the Bible,” Hawk said. “That piece of paper sets a norm: Thou shalt not kill. Turn our weapons into ploughshares. It sets a norm of how we should function with one another.”
But Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, argued that only law-abiding people would be affected by banning guns in public health care facilities.
“A criminal, he is free to carry a gun wherever he wants and do whatever he wants,” Olson said. “Someone that wants to protect themselves, they’re going to pay the consequences when these situations happen.”
Olson then made an unsubstantiated claim that cell phones in the hands of motorists are responsible for more deaths than guns in the United States.
Holding up his own cell phone to make a point, Olson said, “I bet if you took a true statistic, you will find out this device, with a car, kills more people every day than probably everything else put together. I can’t say that for a fact, but I can tell you that it kills more people, that it harms more people than any gun or anything else.”
In fact, according to federal statistics, gun-related deaths in the United States far outpace deaths from cell phone-related vehicle accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimates that over the last five years the nation has averaged about 12,000 gun-related homicides per year. In 2015, there were 3,477 deaths caused by “distracted driving” which includes talking or texting while driving as well as other forms of distraction.
Olson then tried to shut off debate by offering a motion to send the bill back to the Federal and State Affairs Committee, where conservatives hold a solid majority, a move that likely would have killed the bill for the remainder of this session. But Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, made a substitute motion to send it back to the Ways and Means Committee, where moderates hold a slight edge, in hopes of finding compromise language.
Schmidt’s motion prevailed on an unrecorded vote in which senators stood to be counted as yes or no.
Both committees are exempt from legislative deadlines, so the bill could be seen again before lawmakers adjourn, although it was uncertain Tuesday whether that would happen.
Tuesday marked the 92nd day of what is scheduled to be a 100-day session.