Plenty of gun issues await Kansas lawmakers’ action, but will they go anywhere?
Topeka ? In the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 students and faculty members dead, state lawmakers in Kansas are coming under pressure to take action on guns and school safety measures.
Currently, there are five bills pending in the Legislature that would, to one extent or another, limit the ability of certain people to buy or possess guns, two of which have already made it through the House and are now awaiting Senate action.
Included in the group, however, are two new bills introduced in the past week that are intended to keep guns out of the hands of people with serious mental or behavioral disorders.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, and House Democratic Leader Jim Ward have both introduced bills known as “red flag” bills that would allow family members or law enforcement officials to petition a court to order guns confiscated from cetain people if there is reason to believe they pose a danger to themselves or others.
“It is a great start, not because of the Parkland shooting, but because of suicide and gun violence, especially domestic violence issues,” Bollier said in an interview.
Bollier actually introduced the bill earlier in the session, but that bill died after the “turnaround” deadline for bills to pass out of their original chamber expired Feb. 22. But it has since been reintroduced as Senate Bill 431, and Bollier said she has been assured by Republican leaders that it will at least get a committee hearing.
Five states currently have such laws in place, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, recently signed an executive order giving law enforcement in that state authority to take guns away from people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves and others.
Bollier said her bill is not intended as a response to the Florida shooting. In fact, she said she has introduced similar bills each of the last three years. But she insisted that if a “red flag” bill had been in place in Florida, it could have stopped the violence.
“If that family with a 19-year-old — he had his rights — and if they had said they were concerned about his mental health, a judge could have ruled and potentially taken his guns away.”
Ward said in a separate interview that he introduced his bill at the request of a constituent whose son is about to turn 18. Ward said that young man is autistic and tends to focus heavily on guns, and the mother is afraid that when he turns 18, she won’t be legally able to prevent him from buying one.
Ward, whose bill had not yet been assigned a number as of Thursday, said he has seen the Kansas House reject gun control measures in the past, but he thinks the political landscape has changed since the Florida shooting.
“And I really think the kids — the high school kids, the college kids — have kind of changed that dialog right now,” he said. “Just like the civil rights movement in the ’60s, it was the kids who (dragged) the adults.”
A large number of high school and college students are expected to converge on the Statehouse Saturday, March 24, the same day anti-gun marches are taking place in Washington and several other cities around the country.
But Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, where gun legislation is typically referred in the House, said he isn’t sure the landscape in Topeka has changed that much regarding guns.
“I think the landscape has changed on the national level,” he said in an interview. “I’ve seen the president talk about getting a new regulation out on bump stocks. He’s talking about not letting 18-year-olds talk about buying semi-automatic weapons.”
Barker did, however, say he was interested in looking at the “red flag” bills by Bollier and Ward.
“That’s always been a problem with mental health,” he said in an interview. “I agree, people that have emotional and mental illness, they don’t need to have a gun.”
A bill introduced earlier by Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, House Bill 2442, would impose a ban in Kansas on bump stocks, the devices used in the October mass shooting in Las Vegas that effectively allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire like a fully automatic machine gun.
But Barker said he doesn’t intend to hold hearings on that bill because he believes the Trump administration will take federal action on that issue.
Earlier in the session, the House passed two bills limiting the ability of certain people to own guns.
House Bill 2145 would add some of the same exclusions that currently exist in federal law, including fugitives from justice, people not lawfully present in the United States and people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
It also passed House Bill 2042, a so-called “reciprocity” bill that allows people with valid concealed-carry permits from other states to carry concealed firearms in Kansas.
During debate on that bill, however, the House rejected proposed amendments to repeal a law allowing concealed-carry on college campuses, but it approved an amendment lowering the minimum age for carrying concealed firearms to 18 instead of 21, as long as those under 21 receive firearms training.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, a gun rights advocate, said he also doesn’t believe the Florida shooting has altered the political landscape on gun legislation.
“The whole thing is tragic, but what I don’t like seeing is people trying to make political hay out of these things,” he said in an interview. “You’ve got someone with deep mental problems. You’ve got lapses in law enforcement because obviously they didn’t go into the school for whatever reason. You’ve got lapses in the system that didn’t see the warning signs and communicate them effectively. And instead we’re talking about bump stocks. That’s a symptom. Let’s treat the problem.”
But Whitmer said he has concerns about the “red flag” bills proposed by Bollier and Ward, although he didn’t dismiss the idea entirely.
“My first reaction to that is, before you take away someone’s constitutional rights, we need to make sure you’ve got something more than just hearsay,” he said. “I like the court hearing. But if I’m declaring someone unstable, it needs to be a doctor that actually says, ‘yes, there’s an issue here,’ before you take away someone’s constitutional right.”
Meanwhile, House Republicans are said to be working on a comprehensive bill to address school safety. Whitmer, who said he has been part of those discussions, said it is likely to include such things as mandating that all schools have safety plans in place, as well as things like gun safety training for students, and possibly more funding for mental health services.