Here’s a story about the human cost of politics in Kansas. Prepare yourselves, because it’s painful. But anyone who makes a law in Kansas should be required to sit with it, and the rest of us should witness it.
The story is about House Bill 2089, the one requiring that, if Kansas children in kindergarten through fifth grade are to learn gun safety, it must be through the NRA’s “Eddie the Eagle” curriculum. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed it on April 22. We’ll see whether Republicans can revive it with their promised “veto-override-a-rama” when lawmakers come back to the God-forsaken Capitol next week.
There’s likely no better example of how lawmakers hurt actual people while undermining democracy with their messed-up but regular practice of inserting legislation into empty “shells” of bills so they can pass laws they haven’t been able to get through the usual committee process.
Rep. Patrick Penn, a Republican from Wichita, surprised members of the House Federal and State Affairs committee when he proposed the Eddie the Eagle bill on March 11. No such bill had been introduced, but he was bringing back legislation he said “overwhelmingly passed out of the Kansas House” three years ago, in 2018.
This time, he was calling it the Roy’Ale Act, in honor of Roy’Ale Spencer, a 9-year-old boy who’d been killed in 2019 by an 11-year-old friend in what the Sedgwick County district attorney determined to be an accident. The boys opened a gun safe and played with a loaded weapon they found.
Penn said he’d met with Roy’Ale’s mother, Sunny Smith, who’d been “on a mission to try to find some sense of solace.” This bill, he said, “would allow us to come alongside Ms. Smith in strength and honor and respect both the memory of her son but also provide against any future loss of life of our children.”
The committee descended into something approximating chaos over legislative procedure.
“Walk us through exactly what’s happening here,” asked Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Democrat from Overland Park, who noted that the bill hadn’t actually been introduced this session.
The committee chair, Republican Rep. John Barker of Abilene, explained that they would be using a “shell.” After all, they do this sort of thing all the time.
“Are you following this process because you’re somehow afraid of a full-blown hearing and the criticism that might come from that?” Rep. Vic Miller, a Democrat from Topeka, asked Penn.
“Sir, I did 20 years in the Army. Not afraid of a hearing,” Penn said.
The conversation deteriorated until Barker agreed to give committee members a day to study up, all of which made for 23 minutes of confusion-and-tension-filled Kansas Legislature must-see TV:
The next day’s sequel was another hour of the same (starting about 35 minutes in), with one added layer of grotesque hypocrisy. Democrats tried to amend the bill to include the one other thing Roy’Ale Spencer’s mother had asked for: a requirement for Kansans to store their weapons safely. But Republicans defeated that effort, and the committee advanced the bill to the House floor, where it passed 79-44.
There was no public hearing. If there had been, lawmakers might have heard directly from Smith — a woman they spent a lot of time talking about.
Instead, she was watching from home, posting quasi-public testimony via live videos on Facebook, for whoever was following her.
“I don’t quite know exactly what happened on there,” she said after watching the March 12 committee meeting.
It’s painful to watch Smith struggle to make sense of what the Legislature was doing — a familiar pain to those of us who watch it every day.
But what’s most painful is hearing Smith repeatedly expressing her desire for the safe-storage legislation, or Senate Bill 294.
“I support both bills,” she said.
Her explanation for why is as simple and common-sense as a person can get.
“I feel like everyone should have the right to bear arms, but I feel like it should come with responsibility,” she said.
“How are you letting your child handle guns? That’s a personal choice as a parent, but that personal choice as a parent should come with stipulations,” she said. “As far as if my child goes to your house, and your child is playing with the loaded gun and my son ends up dead, you should be held responsible, period.”
The safe-storage bill never even got a hearing in the Senate, despite the efforts of Sen. Oletha Faust Goudeau, a Democrat from Wichita.
Yes to the NRA safety curriculum. No on storing weapons safely.
“I was pushing for safe storage. This is not what I asked for but it’s a start,” Smith said on Facebook after it became clear the Roy’Ale Act would pass.
At least her son’s name would be remembered in some kind of legislation that might do some good.
Then came Kelly’s veto. The governor said authority over school curriculum should remain with the state board of education.
Smith’s anger and agony are palpable in the Facebook video she posted in response. It’s a nine minute testament to what it feels like when a regular person tries to bring about change and ends up in the Kansas Legislature’s political meat grinder.
“Kansas doesn’t care about children. At least mine,” she said.
Whether it was for the NRA or in support of a grieving mother, she appreciated that Penn put up a fight. Lost, by then, was the idea that the safe-storage bill never even had a chance.
Penn posted in response, urging Smith’s followers to support an override. Smith amplified her agreement in a video on April 23.
I messaged Smith on Facebook but she didn’t reply.
“My time is Kansas maybe coming to an end,” she posted later that night. “Time for me to move on like seriously.”
Who could blame her.