Kansas law change may allow even blind to carry concealed

In the state of Kansas, to carry a concealed firearm you need a gun — preferably something that fits nice under your jacket, in your pocket or perhaps in your purse.

You also need a license, the state’s seal of approval that you can hide a firearm on your person.

What’s less clear is whether you need eyesight. It certainly is suggested, unquestionably helpful. But following a change in state law, it is no longer clear whether it is required.

Kansas legislators during the last session approved a number of changes to the state’s concealed carry law. One of them was that people who are renewing their license no longer have to take any sort of test to prove they’re still proficient with a firearm.

The changes also removed language from the law that gave the attorney general the right to deny applicants a license if they “suffer from a physical infirmity which prevents the safe handling of a weapon.”

A spokesman for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt — whose office oversees the concealed carry program — conceded this week that the office is uncertain whether it has the authority to deny a concealed carry license renewal for any physical reason, even if the applicant is blind.

“We are currently working to determine the intent of the Legislature when this change was made during the 2010 legislative session,” Jeff Wagaman, deputy chief of staff for Schmidt, said in a statement.

About 30,000 Kansans are licensed to carry concealed firearms. The fact that none of them may ever have to prove to the state again that they can safely fire a weapon brought varying reactions, depending upon which side of the gun debate you’re on.

“From my experience, the people who have a license are people who continue to practice with this,” said George Pisani, a Lawrence resident who is a concealed carry instructor and supporter of the law change. “They are cognizant of the fact that if they ever have to use a weapon to protect themselves that vision is pretty important. I think there is a lot of self-policing that goes on.”

Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, isn’t surprised by the change. He said he sees gun lobbyists across the country successfully persuading state legislatures to remove training requirements and other regulations related to concealed carry.

“I call it the walking, talking slippery slope,” Malte said. “That’s the gun lobby. They set up a system that involves weapon proficiency and testing and then they work bit by bit to repeal each piece of it until it leads to what they have in Arizona, where you don’t even need a permit.”

• • •

What the change unquestionably has led to in Kansas is an absurd question by a journalist: Can a blind man legally have a concealed carry permit in Kansas?

That’s the question the Journal-World posed to the Kansas attorney general’s office after a review of the statutes no longer appeared to contain any provisions allowing the state to factor in a person’s physical ability or proficiency when renewing a license.

To be clear, a test is still required for new applicants. Those who have never had a license in the state are required to attend an eight-hour class, and to successfully hit 18 of 25 targets from distances ranging from 3 yards to 10 yards. That class and test have been eliminated for people seeking to renew.

Kansas concealed carry licenses are valid for four years. That brings up the possibility that during the four-year period the person’s physical condition has changed to the point that he could no longer pass that test.

Or think of it this way: The person gets his license when he’s 40. Forty years later, he’s on his 10th renewal cycle and is now 80 years old. Could he still pass the test?

To take it one step further, what if he has gone blind in those four years or 40 years? If he sent in his application, would it get renewed?

After about two days of searching the statutes, Wagaman at the attorney general’s office essentially said the office wasn’t sure.

“We appreciate you pointing this out,” Wagaman said in a response to an e-mail that asked the question about a blind applicant and several others.

• • •

Granted, it probably isn’t likely that someone who is blind will seek to renew a concealed carry permit. But lots of people know of someone’s grandmother or grandfather who insists they can still drive despite declining eyesight. Replace the car with a gun, and that scenario might be more likely.

Or what if a daughter calls the attorney general’s office and says her elderly father who is renewing his concealed carry permit has Parkinson’s disease to such a degree that he can’t hold a cup of tea, let alone a gun? Could the state require that applicant to take a proficiency test?

Again, Wagaman said he was unsure, and said the office was trying to determine the legislative intent. Schmidt, before being elected attorney general, was a member of last year’s legislature and voted for the changes.

The state’s renewal application does require an applicant to swear to several facts under the penalty of perjury. But none of them is related to their ability to safely handle a weapon. That, too, was changed during the last legislative session.

Previously, applicants had to swear that they met all the requirements of a specific section of the state’s concealed carry code. Prior to last year, that section included the clause that affirmed the applicant “does not suffer from a physical infirmity which prevents the safe handling of a weapon.” That language has been stricken from the law.

• • •

Legislators had varying reactions to the changes. Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence and the House Minority Leader, didn’t vote for the changes but said he understands that people do not want to have to go through unnecessary bureaucracy to have a state license renewed. But he said a change requiring people retake the test after a certain number of years have lapsed from their original test may be warranted.

Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, did support the law changes — Knox is the legislator who plans to introduce legislation limiting the ability of universities and local governments to post “no gun” signs on their buildings — but he said this week some of the scenarios that could arise by not testing deserved thought.

“I think there are some valid questions there,” Knox said.

But he stopped short of saying he would seek to make changes to the law.

“I have a lot of confidence in the average Kansan,” Knox said. “I think a lot of people who have concealed carry don’t carry that much because they realize the gravity of it. It is a tremendous responsibility. I trust people in general.”

• • •

Making any change to the law may be tough. The National Rifle Association, which helped craft the state’s original concealed carry law and the most recent changes, said the proficiency issue was overblown.

Jordan Austin, the Kansas state lobbyist for the NRA, said his organization likely would oppose changes that even stopped short of requiring full proficiency testing for renewals. For example, everybody who renews a concealed carry license must go to a Kansas driver’s license office to get their picture taken. All Kansas driver’s license offices have eye testing machines. But Jordan said the NRA likely would oppose any effort to make concealed license holders take an eye test upon renewal.

“I don’t ever see that being an idea that we would endorse,” Austin said. “It is not necessary. Why should you be required to maintain some sort of correct vision to exercise a right? You could have left your glasses at home, you could wear contact lenses. It is a subjective standard set by a government agency.”

For the NRA, Austin said, the issue comes down to the Second Amendment. He said recent Supreme Court rulings have affirmed that people have a right to own a gun for protection. He believes that right extends to people being able to carry a weapon concealed, and questions whether concealed carry licenses should even be a part of state laws in the future.

Several states, with Arizona being the most prominent, no longer require individuals to have a license to carry concealed firearms. Austin believes that eventually will be the law in Kansas too.

“I see Kansas going in that direction in the not too distant future,” Austin said. “It probably won’t happen this legislative session, but I wouldn’t doubt that it gets considered soon.”