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Guns will be allowed at psychiatric hospitals — unless Kansas comes up with millions to stop it

Guns are displayed at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention last month in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

Officials in Kansas are scrambling to keep weapons out of state hospitals — including psychiatric facilities — four years after passing a law to allow them.

A 2013 bill expanded gun laws in Kansas by allowing concealed firearms in state and municipal buildings, while also giving a four-year exemption to public colleges and hospitals. But that exemption expires July 1.

So for hospitals to be able to continue banning guns, lawmakers must either pass a new law making that exemption permanent — or implement costly security measures.

Under the 2013 law, facilities can still ban weapons after July 1 if they meet certain security requirements, such as installing metal detectors and hiring full-time armed security guards. But those measures would cost millions.

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups have spent the past four years trying to roll back parts of the 2013 law, but most efforts have faltered. Now, the looming deadline has reignited the gun debate in the Kansas legislature.

For mental-health advocates, the obvious choice is to permanently exempt hospitals. A bill moving through the legislature would do just that.

“As a general principle, dollars for treating the mentally ill are incredibly constrained, and the idea that we would use those constrained dollars to implement security measures instead of treating the mentally ill just doesn’t seem — it’s not a high-quality idea in our minds,” said Colin Thomasset, associate director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.

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But with a powerful gun lobby in Kansas — which Guns & Ammo ranked eighth among the “Best States for Gun Owners” — passing legislation that would limit the effects of an expansive gun-rights law may be challenging. The National Rifle Association and its local affiliate oppose House Bill 2278, which would exempt government-owned hospitals, adult care homes, community mental-health centers, indigent health-care clinics and the University of Kansas Health System from allowing concealed weapons.

If that bill becomes law, such facilities can simply ban guns without security measures in place.

The NRA describes H.B. 2278 as a solution to a nonexistent problem. “It places an arbitrary boundary on your right to self-defense,” the organization’s legislative arm said.

Still, Tim Keck, head of the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services, is optimistic that legislators will pass the new bill.

“Our patients at state hospitals are the sickest of the sick from a mental-health standpoint,” said Keck, whose agency controls four state hospitals, including two psychiatric facilities and two centers for people with disabilities. “They go there and are admitted there because they’re a danger to themselves and others … We shouldn’t put guns close to their access. I’m a Second Amendment person and a conservative myself, but I don’t think it’s safe to have at state hospitals.”

Thomasset, whose organization represents 26 community mental-health centers, echoed Keck in recent Senate committee testimony, saying that such centers “by statute … must treat every person who walks through the door; so if an individual who is in crisis walks through our door carrying a concealed weapon, that situation presents a dangerous scenario not only to our staff, but also for other patients seeking treatment.”

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If H.B. 2278 fails, officials estimate the state would have to spend $24 million over the next two years to keep guns out of government hospitals and mental-health centers. The bulk of that funding, which Gov. Sam Brownback (R) submitted in a recent budget proposal, would cover salaries and benefits for 180 additional staff, including security guards, at 30 state hospitals.

About $180,000 would be for one-time costs to buy metal detectors and firearms for security guards.

Some lawmakers criticized Brownback’s administration for requesting for funding just months before the exemption expires — despite knowing about the July 1 deadline since 2013.

During a budget hearing last month, lawmakers seemed skeptical that metal detectors will be in place and trained security guards will be hired by July.

“I think it was pretty apparent there has been no planning and no real effort to get prepared for July 1; there’s no training program in place,” Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) said, according to the Wichita Eagle.

Brownback’s budget request does not allot money for firearms training.

“If we’re going to train existing personnel who are not authorized to carry now, they’re going to have to get into training,” said Sen. Vicki Schmidt (R-Topeka), the Eagle reported.

Keck acknowledged the tightness of the time frame to have security measures in place. He said the money was not requested earlier because of another priority. The agency had to ask legislators for $20 million last year after its main state hospital lost federal funding, Keck said.

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He said he’s counting on H.B. 2278 passing.

And he may have some reason to be optimistic: Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning (R-Overland Park) said the majority of lawmakers support exempting hospitals from allowing concealed weapons, according to the Wichita Eagle.

Less clear is its fate if it reaches the governor’s desk.

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, said the governor will review any legislation that comes before him. But Brownback has described himself as “a long and consistent supporter of Second Amendment rights.” He also signed the 2013 bill — the very law the new legislation seeks to counter.

If the bill fails, Keck said he hopes the legislature “would at least give us the money” for the security measures.

But with less than two months before the July 1 deadline, no funding is in place.

If both the bill and the funding request fail, Keck said his agency has plans to accommodate security measures. That includes contracting with a private security firm or asking for staffing help from the state Department of Corrections. The agency also will have to find some way to afford the needed equipment.

A somewhat similar debate is happening in Texas, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban guns at psychiatric hospitals — just a year after passing a law that did the opposite.


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