TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators are facing a midsummer deadline to approve costly security upgrades for state hospitals and mental institutions in order to keep in place a four-year-old ban on concealed weapons inside the facilities.
While the conservative state frequently embraces pro-gun policies, this debate is unique. Even Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP lawmakers who are strong supporters of concealed carry don't want the exemption for hospitals to disappear, fearing the prospect of guns around mental patients or in areas with specialized equipment.
Absent a change in existing state law, universities, state and other public hospitals, mental health centers, some nursing homes and other facilities must allow concealed weapons in their buildings starting in July unless they provide "adequate" security such as guards or metal detectors.
The law was enacted in 2013 and was designed to ensure that people with state concealed-carry permits could bring their weapons into public buildings. The law granted a four-year exemption that expires July 1 to universities and the facilities covered by the bill.
Supporters of the law said they're trying to make sure that if a building does not have adequate security, gun owners still can protect themselves from criminal threats. They also worry that lawmakers might chip away at concealed carry, expanded in 2015 to allow people to carry their weapons without a permit.
A stalemate appeared to have developed over any potential gun bill, making it likely that GOP leaders would let the issue drop this year. But last month, Brownback proposed spending $24 million over two years on additional security at the cash-strapped state's two mental hospitals and its two hospitals for the developmentally disabled — compelling another look.
Gun-rights groups are pushing hard to keep the resulting legislation narrow, so that people could still bring their weapons into public hospital areas. But Republican legislative leaders also are facing pressure from other lawmakers and advocates who want a broader debate on keeping concealed guns off of university campuses as well.
The Senate plans to debate a concealed carry bill next week. It would keep concealed guns out of the state hospitals, other public hospitals and nursing homes, community mental health centers, health clinics for the poor and the University of Kansas Medical Center and nearby buildings in Kansas City, Kansas.
"We're always open to more compromise," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican. "I do like the bill as it is."
Travis Couture-Lovelady, a National Rifle Association lobbyist, said gun-rights supporters are willing to allow the health care facilities to keep weapons out of secured areas or even areas requiring a badge for entry.
"We're trying to be flexible," said Couture-Lovelady, a former Kansas House member. "What we won't agree with is slapping a no-guns sticker on the front door and declaring it gun-free."
While state universities have been preparing for months for concealed guns, opposition on their campuses remains strong. Democrats and several GOP moderates have pursued a provision allowing campuses to ban concealed weapons permanently.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Mission Hills Republican, said she expects the proposal to be offered during the Senate's debate next week but believes it would fail. However, advocates of the idea haven't given up and still come to the Statehouse, wearing the red T-shirts of the Moms Demand Action group pushing for what it views as commonsense gun laws.
"I'm a parent. I'm a gun owner," said Jo Ella Hoye, of Lenexa, one of the group's members. "I am not opposed to be people having guns but there can reasonable limitation to where those guns can be."
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