Gov. Sam Brownback’s desire to avoid spending millions of dollars upgrading security at four state hospitals to comply with a concealed-gun law Thursday eclipsed the Republican’s political adherence to legislation buttressing the “most sacred” right to bear arms.
He chose to let become law a bill enabling state mental hospitals, the University of Kansas Health System and a collection of community mental health centers to continue banning concealed firearms despite an aggressive campaign by the National Rifle Association opposing the legislation.
“This bill does appropriately address safety concerns at state mental health hospitals,” Brownback said in a statement. “As a result, I will permit House Bill 2278 to become law without my signature.”
Without action by the Legislature to rewrite Kansas law, each of the health facilities would have been compelled to welcome individuals with weapons hidden in purses, backpacks and coats starting July 1.
Without an exemption, KU’s hospital in Kansas City, Kan., would be the only hospital in the seven-county metropolitan area without a ban on handguns.
Brownback said in a message to the Legislature that sections of the bill covering KU facilities and community centers represented a flawed restriction on the Second Amendment rights of Kansans to protect themselves when working or visiting those medical buildings.
“Kansans should not be forced to subject themselves to greater risk while giving up their right to protect themselves,” the governor said. “Second Amendment rights do not disappear when walking through the doors of a hospital or medical facility.”
Brownback’s decision to concede on the bill was a reversal for a governor who declared while signing the 2013 bill establishing concealed-gun mandates the “right to bear arms has long been among those constitutional rights held most sacred by the citizens of Kansas.”
In 2015, Brownback signed a bill making Kansas the sixth state to embrace “constitutional carry” of concealed firearms without a state permit or firearm training. Brownback said at that time that people didn’t need a “permission slip from the government” to exercise a fundamental constitutional right.
The foundational Kansas statute expanding the public’s opportunity to carry concealed in buildings, including universities and hospitals, required operators of those public buildings to install airport-style security equipment and hire personnel by July 1 or allow entrance to anyone carrying a concealed firearm. Owners of private businesses retain the option of banning firearms.
Impetus for modification of that law during the 2017 legislative session followed disclosures the Brownback administration neither requested nor reallocated $12 million to $24 million necessary to comply with the security mandate at Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka, Osawatomie State Hospital, Larned State Hospital and Parsons State Hospital.
The House responded by voting 91-33, and the Senate concurred 24-16, on House Bill 2278, which exempted the four state hospitals, as well as the KU medical facilities and community clinics across the state. A campaign to exclude state university buildings didn’t gain traction.
“Recognizing and supporting the importance of keeping the hospital portion of this bill as a prime focus, I remain disappointed that we have not been able to deal with the prohibition of guns on our college campuses,” said Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan.
The NRA and its affiliate, the Kansas State Rifle Association, opposed any adjustment of the 2013 law.
Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, said hospitals had plenty of opportunity to comply with Kansas law related to concealed firearms.
“They had four years to figure it out but turned a blind eye,” he said. “It’s not a stretch to think our hospitals may become a target. Our hospitals should be secure.”
Sen. Ed Berger, R-Hutchinson, had proposed that the state amend the statute to only allow people with a concealed-carry permit to bring guns into the state hospitals.
“It would have provided assurance that those carrying had the appropriate training, had respect for the weapon, could use the weapon and were aware of safety issues,” Berger said.
Senators rejected the idea, along with a last-minute proposal from the NRA offered by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, that would have permitted concealed guns in public health facilities if firearms were placed in a secure room or locker before the owners entered restricted areas with patients.