Bar owners surprised by change in concealed carry law

New regulations relaxed gun restrictions in taverns

For the past year, some Lawrence bar owners unknowingly have been inviting concealed carry permit holders to bring loaded guns into their taverns.

Kansas legislators made changes to the state’s concealed carry law during the 2007 session that significantly loosened restrictions on concealed carry holders bringing their weapons into drinking establishments.

That was news to local bar owners and hospitality industry leaders.

“You’re (expletive) me,” said Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence.

Renfro, like the vast majority of bar owners in Lawrence, does not have a no-guns-allowed sign posted at his bar’s entrances. Renfro said he believed the state law made bars and taverns automatically prohibited places for concealed carry holders to enter with their weapons, regardless of whether a sign was posted.

That is how the law read when it originally passed in 2006. But during the 2007 session, legislators made several changes. One was that bars – along with several other once automatically prohibited places – would have to post a no-guns sign if they wanted to prohibit concealed carry holders from bringing their guns on the premises.

Now the law is clear that concealed carry holders cannot be cited for breaking the law by entering a tavern unless the tavern has the state-approved sign posted, said Chuck Sexson, the director of the concealed carry program for the Kansas Attorney General’s office. The law took effect nearly a year ago, on July 1, 2007.

The law still does make it illegal for a concealed carry permit holder to have a weapon with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08, the same level for driving under the influence. People without a concealed carry license also cannot bring a gun into a bar, or anywhere else.

Several bar owners, though, said they didn’t like the idea of any patron having a gun in their establishments.

“I don’t think anybody who is drinking alcohol should be carrying a gun. It won’t do anything to help improve their decision making,” said Brad Ziegler, who owns parts of three Lawrence bars and had not heard of the change until informed by a reporter.

Sexson, with the attorney general’s office, said the intent of the law was not to encourage people to carry a weapon while drinking. He said concealed carry instructors are told to stress that guns and alcohol do not mix.

Instead, Sexson said the change was designed to clear up confusion about when a concealed carry holder could legally enter an establishment that served alcohol. Under the previous regulations, bars and taverns were automatically prohibited but restaurants that served alcohol were not.

“We got a lot of questions about that,” Sexson said.

There was not an easy answer to give to confused permit holders, he said. That’s because the law defined food-serving taverns and alcohol-serving restaurants based on the percentage of food sales the establishment made. That’s information not easily available to a permit holder. Phil Bradley, executive director of the Lawrence-based Kansas Licensed Beverage Association, doesn’t like the law change, but said he’s equally concerned that no one seemed to make an effort to notify bar owners of the change. He said he did not know of the change, even though he followed the Legislature closely. He said he expected many bar owners across the state weren’t aware of the new rules.

“I think all this is dangerous at best,” Bradley said.

Sen. Phil Journey, a Haysville Republican who supported the change, is making no apologies about how the process was handled. The attorney general’s office did post a summary of changes to the law on its Web site. But Journey said it was mainly up to organizations such as Bradley’s to inform their members of changes.

“That’s not my obligation,” Journey said. “They are published in the statute book and published in the Kansas Register. That’s public notice, and there certainly was debate in the legislature.”

Much of the media attention on H.B. 2528 focused on provisions prohibiting cities from taking action to exempt themselves from parts of the concealed carry act. That’s why a Lawrence law prohibiting guns within 200 feet of any drinking establishment doesn’t apply to concealed carry permit holders.

But the most recent change in state law did surprise city leaders. Scott Miller, a city attorney who provides legal advice to the Lawrence Police Department, wasn’t aware of the changes made to bars and taverns. He said he would be informing the police department of the changes. And he said the law was written in a way that the city could not pass a local ordinance to exempt itself from the provision.

Bradley said he might lobby the Legislature to change the law in 2009. In the meantime, bar owners will be deciding whether to post signs. Renfro said he almost certainly would, but won’t like the fact.

“I feel like those signs almost encourage it and make it more of an issue,” Renfro said. “I specifically did not put them up because I did not want to bring up the image of a knife and gun club.”