Law enforcement can bar protesters from Kansas Statehouse, but not people concealing firearms
photo by: Peter Hancock
TOPEKA — Democratic leaders in the Kansas Legislature on Friday questioned why law enforcement officers are allowed to block nonviolent protesters from entering the building because of security concerns, but not people carrying concealed firearms.
That issue came up during a meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council, which is made up of the top Republican and Democratic leaders of the Kansas House and Senate.
Earlier this year, the LCC asked for a report explaining why security officers had locked the public entrance to the building for 22 minutes during regular business hours to prevent a group of protesters from entering the building, and what formal policies those officers used to make such a decision.
The incident occurred June 18 when a group calling itself the Poor People’s Campaign attempted to enter the building to stage a protest. That group had staged a number of protests over the summer to raise awareness about issues of social injustice, racism, hunger, health care and other matters affecting the poor and minorities.
The group had been denied a permit for its June 18 protest in the Statehouse because it had previously engaged in a number of civil disobedience actions around the Statehouse that summer that involved blocking public streets and staging sit-ins in the secretary of state’s office and outside the governor’s office, all of which had resulted in numerous arrests.
Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, told the panel that there were no formal policies in place, but that officers had to use their own judgment in certain situations in order to protect the safety of Statehouse employees and the public.
“Civil disobedience is not always nonviolent and can escalate quickly, oftentimes for no apparent reason,” Day said. “Situations can get out of hand and turn violent in an instant. Law enforcement must be ever vigilant and cognizant of the situation before then.”
“There are no policies and procedures on locking the building,” he said. “It’s just intuition, it’s training, and there are split-second decisions that they have to make.”
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, noted that the same law enforcement experts who are allowed to make on-the-scene decisions about barring protesters also strongly urged lawmakers not to allow people to carry concealed firearms into the building, and yet the Legislature decided that year not to impose such restrictions.
“I’ve sat in the Kansas Security Committee and the experts, the people whose judgment we should trust, were vehemently opposed to allowing concealed carry in this building, and yet we did not follow their recommendation,” Hensley said.
“We can’t have a double standard here,” he added. “If we want to trust the experts, if we want to trust their judgment, we should do it in all cases, and we just didn’t do it when it came to concealed carry.”
The concealed carry policy at the Statehouse is the result of a 2013 law that mandated all state and local government-owned buildings in Kansas allow people to carry concealed firearms unless they provide adequate measures to prevent anyone from bringing weapons inside.
The Kansas Statehouse has such security systems. There is a single public entrance on the north side of the building, and visitors entering must pass through a security station that has metal detectors and is staffed by Kansas Highway Patrol and Capitol Police officers.
Despite that, Kansas lawmakers have so far not taken action to exempt the Statehouse from the concealed carry law.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said he believed the state should have formal policies and procedures in place to protect the right of people to protest while also protecting public safety in the building.
“Because civil disobedience has a long history in our country,” Ward said. “It is difficult for law enforcement, but it has a long history in our country as a way of protesting by minorities to raise their voices to get heard by the majority, and I’d hate to have us stifle that.”
Despite the concerns Hensley and Ward raised, the Legislative Coordinating Council took no action after receiving the report.