Political shootout erupts after move to allow under-21 Kansans to carry concealed firearms

House rejects limits on concealed guns at Capitol, college campuses

By: - March 4, 2021 1:56 pm
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, proposed a House amendment to ban concealed handguns from the Capitol except for law enforcement officers. Opponents of the amendment said the 30 to 40 House members who routinely carry a gun were needed to bolster security. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, proposed a House amendment to ban concealed handguns from the Capitol except for law enforcement officers. Opponents of the amendment said the 30 to 40 House members who routinely carry a gun were needed to bolster security. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Rep. Boog Highberger urged House peers to ban the public and legislators from bringing concealed firearms into the Capitol, but Rep. Blake Carpenter argued the 40 or so representatives carrying guns at the moment didn’t abandon constitutional rights at the door.

Reps. Barbara Ballard and Susan Estes exchanged heartfelt pleas from polar opposite perspectives about a state law placing guns within easy reach of students on public university campuses.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, failed to advance an amendment to create a K-12 gun safety program to honor a boy killed in 2019. Penn warned colleagues the deceased boy’s mother was watching the House session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

And, Rep. Stephen Owens demanded conceal-carry rights for teenagers on behalf of a terrified daughter who eluded abduction, while Rep. Jo Ella Hoye stood for victims of gun violence and suggested political zeal to enable younger Kansans to secretly carry firearms could have unintended consequences.

Their debate on the House floor, mostly calm but occasionally fiery, advanced the cause of House Bill 2058, which at its core addressed a mistake made a half-dozen years ago that raised questions about reciprocity of concealed handgun permits issued in Kansas and the validity of permits authorized by other states.

The bill was amended to create opportunity for 18-, 19- and 20-year-old Kansans to receive safety training and qualify for a concealed-gun permit.

In addition, the measure would allow the attorney general to issue firearm licenses if the Kansas Department of Revenue was unable to perform that work for more than 30 days as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Republican-dominated House approved the package Thursday on a vote of 85-38 despite an assertion by Democratic Rep. Susan Ruiz of Shawnee the bill was anchored in gun-industry propaganda designed to ratchet up fear and a system of financial rewards for politicians backing the industry’s agenda.

“This is a bad bill, especially given our current political climate that perpetuates nationalism and racial division,” Ruiz said.


Guns in the gallery

Highberger, a Democrat from Lawrence, said the rampage at the U.S. Capitol in January offered a timely lesson about what could happen in the Kansas Capitol. Under existing law and policy, adults 21 or older can carry concealed weapons in the Topeka building. It’s as easy as walking through the security checkpoint in the visitors’ entrance, he said.

“I don’t know how that makes you feel, but I’d rather have the Capitol Police be able to stop such individuals before they enter the building rather than rely on armed legislators,” he said.

Highberger proposed the bill be amended to restrict the carrying of concealed firearms to law enforcement officers within the Capitol. Carpenter, the Derby Republican, asked Highberger if anybody had run amok in the building in the years concealed guns had been allowed. Highberger said he recalled now-former Rep. Willie Dove left a loaded .380-caliber handgun in a holster under a table after a meeting of the House Education Committee.

“I do trust our Capitol Police and I thank them for the job they do,” Carpenter said. “However, I can tell you there are probably 30 to 40 firearms on this floor right now and there has been for many years. We’ve never had any issues.”

Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican, led opposition to an amendment prohibiting carrying of concealed guns at the Capitol by anyone other than law enforcement. He said legislators should be armed to deter intruders. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

He said a person elected to the Legislature wasn’t required to be disarmed and stripped of Second Amendment rights whenever at work in the statehouse.

“Quite frankly,” Carpenter added, “if somebody started breaking down doors, I would like to still have the right to defend myself.”

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who said he had a concealed-carry license and owned a gun collection, said it was folly to believe a individual on the House floor in the middle of a crisis could precisely take out an active shooter one floor above in the House gallery. There is little doubt gun-wielding legislators firing into the gallery would kill innocent people, he said.

“You’ll have to put a lot of rounds up there to hit that target and when you do you’re going to hurt other people,” he said.

Highberger said he was disappointed advocates of concealed firearms used the term “constitutional carry” to describe the 2015 state law championed by the National Rifle Association enabling Kansans to carry concealed without a license, without training, without ownership and without any experience with firearms. He said U.S. Supreme Court opinions made clear there was no constitutional right to carry concealed, but states did have authority to adopt legislation to accomplish that objective.

“I support the Second Amendment,” he said, “but I support the Second Amendment as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court — not the National Rifle Association. There is no such constitutional right. That phrase is an alternative fact or what my mother would call a lie.”

The House defeated Highberger’s amendment on a voice vote.


A wild escape

Owens, a Republican from Hesston, said he received a telephone call Oct. 15 from his 20-year-old daughter. She had locked herself in a car because a man stepped out from behind a gas station bump in an attempt to abduct her.

“She’s screaming uncontrollably. I’m 40 miles away,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

He offered a snapshot of that terror-filled moment as introduction to an amendment to House Bill 2058 that would make it legal for individuals 18 to 20 years of age to carry concealed. The measure would broaden current Kansas law that limits possession of concealed handguns to people 21 or older. The amendment would enable these youngsters to undergo gun safety training and complete a background check to qualify for the license. Existing Kansas statute allows individuals in this age range to openly carry firearms.

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, left, a Democrat from Lenexa, said a measure enabling people as young as 18 to carry concealed handguns in Kansas could lead to unintended legal consequences for teenagers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat who has volunteered with Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action, raised questions about whether the amendment could get under-21 people in legal trouble because they didn’t understand where they could legally go with a concealed firearm. She said an 18-year-old with a license who brought a gun to public school would be expelled, but a 19-year-old former student with a conceal-carry permit could enter a school building under federal law without consequence.

She also said lowering the conceal-carry age would place people in the situation of legally carrying a loaded gun based on state law while being forbidden under federal law from purchasing a firearm at a federally licensed gun shop.

“There is some risk here for legal troubles for young Kansans,” Hoye said.

Rep. Aaron Coleman, a 20-year-old freshman Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said it would be odd to be banned from purchasing alcoholic beverages in Kansas, but possess the freedom to carry a concealed handgun.

Rep. Eric Smith, a Republican from Burlington and a deputy sheriff, said the greater absurdity was Kansas law allowing people under 21 to openly carry firearms but maintain a statute forbidding those individuals from carrying concealed weapons. He said he gave his daughter a handgun on her 19th birthday, but with instructions not to carry it until she received more training.

“If you think somebody’s going to take the trouble of going out and getting trained for conceal-carry so they can walk into a school and cause trouble, that’s ridiculous. That’s not who’s doing this,” Smith said.

Owens’ amendment was adopted 87-35 by the House. Hoye’s related amendment shifting Kansas law to require conceal-carry permit holders to undergo training was crushed on a vote of 40-81.


The campus life

Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat who works at the University of Kansas, said state universities were granted a four-year exemption from a 2014 law allowing people to take concealed weapons into most public state and municipal buildings. The Personal and Family Protection Act signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback included the university exemption that expired in July 2017.

Ballard said 11 states, including Kansas and Colorado, had some form of conceal-carry on college campuses. It’s banned by 16 states, but 23 states leave it up to the higher education institutions to decide. There have been no shootouts at KU in the intervening years, she said, but some parents have forbidden their children to attend KU because of the law.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, was unable to generate GOP support for an amendment allowing public universities to decide whether to allow people to carry concealed firerms on campuses in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

She offered an amendment to House Bill 2058 that would authorize university officials in Kansas to make a decision about concealed firearms to reflect local preference. Her amendment was shot down. Meeting the same fate was an alternative offered by Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, requiring people carrying concealed on college campus to have completed a gun safety program.

“I would like for us not to have concealed carry on our campus,” said Ballard, who shared reservations about lowering the legal age to 18. “For many, that is concerning. I believe in safety. I do think 18-year-olds — too young.”

Estes, the Wichita Republican who is the wife of U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, worked as a teacher before elected to the Legislature in 2020. She said while a college student she was tormented by a stalker.

“That person went to my job, attempted to find out my hours, knew where I went to college, attempted to get my class schedule,” she said. “I was blessed that my parents could sell our home and we could move.”

Estes quit her job, but didn’t want to derail her educational plan to become a teacher. She also didn’t have the option of carrying a firearm on campus, she said.

“I was in fear not just inside buildings,” she said. “There’s a sad truth that women are targets.”


A life lost

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, proposed the final amendment of the gun debate. He proposed the state initiate a program to deliver gun safety education to students from kindergarten through high school. He wanted to name the program in honor of Roy’Ale Spencer, a 9-year-old boy in Wichita accidently shot and killed by a friend in January 2019.

The boys managed to get into a locked gun safe and were handling a .410 shotgun before Spencer was shot. His mother, Sunny Smith, said her son didn’t play with guns and didn’t kill himself. The Sedgwick County district attorney declined to file charges in the case.

Penn said the amendment would allow curriculum devised by the NRA and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, but local school boards would make decisions about implementation. His amendment was successfully challenged by Rep. Samantha Poetter, R-Paola, on grounds it wasn’t germane to the bill. Penn said members of the House made whistling sounds as the amendment was swept aside.

He admonished the noise makers and noted the deceased boy’s mother was viewing the House session online.

“She’s watching,” Penn said. “Eyes are upon you.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.