The chairman of a Kansas Senate panel says he doesn’t want to amend a bill that would establish anti-discrimination protections for gun dealers and manufacturers.
SB 331 would make it illegal to refuse to serve or otherwise discriminate against gun dealers and manufacturers. When the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs heard the bill Thursday morning, gay rights and abortion rights providers called on the committee to add language to the bill that would protect against other forms of discrimination.
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, complained that he didn’t want a “tree’d up bill” and warned committee members against bringing amendments when the committee works the bill at a future meeting. “What we’re looking at is a gun bill,” he said.
This prompted a confrontation between Ostmeyer and Tom Witt, the executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, at the end of the hearing.
“The word ‘discrimination’ appears throughout the bill,” Witt said. “It is in the bill title. This bill is about discrimination and for the chairman to refuse to acknowledge that fact is basically a complete misreading or a non-reading of the plain language of the bill.” The bill is titled the “Kansas firearms industry nondiscrimination act.”
Witt had testified that there are an estimated 150,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people living in the state of Kansas compared with only 1,317 federally licensed gun dealers. Kansas is one of 31 states where a person can be fired or evicted for being gay.
He called on the committee to add language that would protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Ostmeyer discouraged the bringing of this and other amendments when the committee moves forward with the bill.
The bill would function similarly to laws that forbid discrimination based on race and religion. It would enable gun dealers to sue in cases where banks or other businesses severed ties or refused to perform a service for a legally licensed gun dealer.
The bill is a response to a U.S. Justice Department initiative called “Operation Choke Point,” which is meant to cut off access to the banking industry for fraudulent businesses. Firearms and ammunition dealers were listed as industries as high risk for fraud by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and gun rights supporters say the initiative encourages banks to cut ties with their businesses.
Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, said the bill “seeks to protect a constitutional right. If gun manufacturers or gun dealers are hamstringed to the point where they can’t provide their service that absolutely hinders individuals’ rights to exercise their Second Amendment rights.”
An FDIC audit released in September did not identify a case in which banks severed ties with a gun-related business based on regulatory pressure.
Trevor Santos, a lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said that the bill “would ensure those involved in the firearms industry are no longer discriminated against solely because they are involved in the lawful commerce of firearms.”
Santos said that the Justice Department has claimed to stop Operation Choke Point, but that gun dealers are still reporting undue scrutiny from banks. He also said that they face discrimination from other businesses.
He said that Centerfire Shooting Sports, a firing range in Olathe, had recently been turned down by an insurance company when it sought to have a vehicle for the business insured because it was involved in the firearms industry.
“This discrimination and refusal to provide goods and services results in higher costs of doing business and increased prices for consumers when exercising their Second Amendment rights,” Santos said.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, asked why the firearms industry should get special protection. He said he was opening a winery and could face discrimination against people who oppose alcohol consumption.
Elise Higgins, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, told lawmakers that if they were going to offer this protection to gun dealers then they should do the same for abortion providers, who also face discrimination from vendors despite offering a constitutionally protected service.
Higgins said that Planned Parenthood has had venues cancel and vendors refuse to complete projects based on their opposition to abortion. She said that if gun dealers are to be given recourse to seek damages, then abortion providers should receive that as well.
Witt pointed out that the bill as written states that if a gun dealer prevails in court they shall be compensated for attorneys’ fees, but it does not make the same guarantee for successful defendants. He said this would make it open season on any business that refuses to work with a gun-related business.
LaTurner said he would not oppose an amendment to address this issue.
Ostmeyer noted that the fiscal impact of the bill was unknown because it’s unclear how many lawsuits it would generate.
Holland pointed out that a bank could turn a gun business down for a loan because it had a weak business model, but that the bank would still be vulnerable to a lawsuit under with bill.
Eric Smith, spokesman for the Kansas League of Municipalities, said that the bill would make city governments vulnerable to countless lawsuits.