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Up in arms in the Capitol

Published on -7/20/2014, 4:52 PM

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In late June, Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick managed artlessly to express a set of viewpoints concerning the First and Second Amendments, feminism, the government's monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and representative democracy that ought to make every Kansan scratch his or her head.

Merrick, as a member of the Legislative Coordinating Council, was identifying effects likely to follow from the council's just concluded meeting. The council just had allowed unrestricted concealed carry of firearms by individuals possessing permits inside the state Capitol. The council's decision was not made by an open affirmative vote, but rather by taking no action and thereby approving by default.

Merrick explained his (in)action by commenting the presence of many, mostly female, red-shirted members of the statewide teachers' labor organization, KNEA, inside the Capitol had made him apprehensive after the House had passed 2014 K-12 school finance legislation. The council's default apparently clears the way for well-armed citizens to provide peace of mind for leaders, such as Merrick, concerned "with people being here" who are antagonistic to majority policy views.

Increased leadership serenity arising from the presence of armed civilians in the Capitol, over and above sworn law enforcement officers, was seconded by Merrick's Senate counterpart, Susan Wagle. To his staff's credit, Merrick's implied fear of school teachers was quickly, if ineptly, recanted with a statement to the effect he really was talking about British Redcoats and revolutionary era matters concerning the usefulness of a well-armed populace.

The speaker's concerns about the hostility of a crowd of teachers has got to raise an eyebrow. It is remotely possible in this liberated age a warrior-teacher might be prepared to assault him -- unlikely, but possible. Therefore, it also is possible the presence of weapons in the hands of sworn police officers might be insufficient to the task, if an assault occurred. Now, for Merrick and others, in the next term, things will be different.

But don't stop with hostile school marms. Imagine retired Delta Force personnel protecting legislators from taking abuse for backing the tax giveaways to well-heeled business interests. There also is the possibility legislators who fail to show enough obedience to the leadership could find themselves denied the kind of armed protection needed when seeking to confer with environmental lobbyists or children's health-care advocates.

The decision to add this expanded civil liberty to the meaning of representative democracy is innovative. In introductory courses I teach, I note politics is two things: 1) It's a way to determine who gets what, when and how when the open market either fails or the people decide the market is not best for allocating a particular scarce resource; and 2) It is warfare without the weapons, enabling victory in public disputes, but in ways that assure an issue always can be re-debated if sufficient political forces are willing.

Admittedly, these are defining statements that work best, if not universally, in established representative democracies. Generally, however, the introduction of views backed by a threat of force as the alternative is seen as a failure in democratic politics.

Here in Kansas, however, we have discovered something new under the sun. The new thing is the security and calm that comes from knowing under the Kansas Capitol dome, anybody could -- at any moment -- haul out his or her "Peacemaker" to cool hot tempers and relieve anxiety among the elected.

In fact, it is quite possible those who are passionate about their positions might have to seriously reconsider expressing themselves at all.

Mark Peterson teaches political science

at the college level in Topeka.

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