WICHITA, Kan. – Reasoning that more guns mean greater safety, Kansas lawmakers voted last year to require cities and counties to make public buildings accessible to people legally carrying concealed weapons.
But for communities that remained wary of such open access to city halls, libraries, museums and courthouses, the Legislature provided an exemption: Guns can be banned as long as local governments pay for protections like metal detectors and security guards, ensuring the safety of those they have disarmed.
It turns out that in Wichita, the state’s most populous city, and in some other towns, the cost of opting out before the Jan. 1 deadline was just too high.
“It was essentially being foisted upon us,” said Janet Miller, a City Council member in Wichita. The city applied over the summer for a six-month exemption but voted last month not to extend it after the police estimated that it would cost $14 million a year to restrict guns in all 107 city-owned buildings.
While Republican-majority legislatures across the country are easing restrictions on gun owners, few states are putting more pressure on municipalities right now than Kansas. The new law has forced some local leaders to weigh policy conviction against fiscal pragmatism in a choice that critics say was flawed from the start: Open vulnerable locations to concealed side arms or stretch meager budgets to cover the extra security measures.
“It’s unfair to the taxpayer to ask them to fork out those kinds of dollars,” said Miller, who wanted more time to weigh options but admitted that choices were slim. “There is no municipality in the state of Kansas that can afford those infrastructure costs.”
The law, signed by Gov. Sam Brownback in April, permitted local governments to apply for a four-year grace period by notifying the state Attorney General’s Office and developing security plans by Jan. 1. Architects of the bill said it was intended to put local leaders on the spot, as municipalities that do not comply will lose liability protections under the statute.
Just weeks before the deadline, officials across Kansas were still examining foot traffic and prioritizing the facilities they wanted to keep gun-free, said Melissa A. Wangemann, general counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties.
“For some of your smaller, more rural areas, it’s just not economically feasible,” she said. Some considered closing entrances to limit security costs.
The Kansas Board of Regents, which runs the state’s public universities, and the library system in Topeka were among those seeking the extended exemption, delaying the issue until 2018. As of Thursday, out of several thousand local government entities across the state, only about 160 places had sought an exemption for at least one of their buildings, according to public documents obtained from the state Attorney General’s Office. Many are hospitals and community colleges.
At least seven states have laws that allow people with concealed-carry licenses to take firearms into public buildings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two of those – Kansas and Nevada – require it unless security measures ensure that no one else can take weapons in, either.
“The government shouldn’t be able to deny a licensed conceal-carry holder their right to provide for their own protection if the government is not willing to,” said State Sen. Forrest Knox, a Republican who helped develop Kansas’ concealed-carry bill, echoing an argument that has gained currency among conservatives amid a national gun control debate.
Kansas set a state record for concealed-carry interest last year with 24,000 applicants. Since the Legislature passed its first concealed-weapons law in 2006, more than 75,000 residents have received the license, which requires eight hours of training.
But even in a state like Kansas, where cultural heritage is steeped in hunting trips and a tradition of self-reliance, there is some uneasiness about broadening the right to carry everywhere. According to a poll last year by Fort Hays State University, about 56 percent of Kansans strongly or somewhat opposed allowing concealed firearms in schools, hospitals and government buildings. The survey of 944 state residents had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
“We have a lot of inexperienced individuals with weapons, and you just never can tell what can happen,” said Mayor Carl Brewer of Wichita, a Democrat who opposed the decision to open buildings to concealed weapons.
But a vote perceived as violating Second Amendment rights in Wichita, a metropolis of nearly 400,000 with a small-town feel, can still be politically problematic. City Council members acknowledge that they received some backlash from gun-owning constituents after they voted for the six-month exemption to the new law in June, a vote they said was critical to giving them more time to examine the issue.
According to the Wichita Police Department, installing metal detectors would cost close to $1 million. The price of the armed security personnel it would take to run those machines was close to $14.5 million a year. The city manager’s staff recommended exempting only some city buildings, proposing security plans for certain facilities that housed children’s activities like libraries, recreational centers and the Wichita Art Museum.
But in early December, the City Council voted, 4-2, to exempt only airport buildings, police facilities and city property that is being leased to private third parties, who are given the option of posting signs out front prohibiting guns. City Hall already had metal detectors in place.
Officials supporting the decision, which they said would require no additional spending for security, said it was the only choice that the self-insured city could afford, given concerns about liability and a general fund that has shrunk over the past four years.
Few have expressed more disappointment in the decision than the board of Wichita’s public library, which already has an armed security officer on site. Steve Roberts, the board’s chairman, said that if library staff members saw someone with a weapon, they would not be able to determine who was carrying it legally and who might be a threat. The police would be called. Lockdowns could occur.
But outside the downtown library on a recent day, residents dismissed those concerns.
“I have no problem where they bring it,” said Sue Ellen Trout, 62, as she held her 4-year-old granddaughter’s hand. Before walking inside, she added, “Keep in mind, this used to be the wild, wild West.”