‘A direct threat’: Kansas Republicans want to block gun restrictions, but face opposition

Gun rights supporters have long argued the Second Amendment should place strict limits on firearm restrictions. Over the past two decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly moved closer to that view.

Kansas Republicans want to go further.

GOP lawmakers are pursuing an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that could effectively block many future limits on gun ownership – potentially providing more robust protections for gun rights than what the U.S. Constitution offers.

Grace Springer, a junior at Olathe East High School, on Tuesday recalled feeling terrified after three people were shot at her high school in March 2022. She urged lawmakers to oppose the amendment, arguing it would make guns more accessible – with potentially fatal consequences.

“This is a dangerous resolution that poses a direct threat to Kansas public safety laws that protect our communities by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them,” Springer told a legislative committee.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, spoke in favor of the amendment. He said he believes an overwhelming majority of Kansans would approve the measure, but that the measure could also face a large-scale campaign that convinces voters to oppose the proposal. He also referenced a 2010 ballot question about the right to bear arms that garnered 88.2% voter approval.

“I’m willing to predict that at least 75% of voters would vote in favor of this,” Kobach told reporters.

The proposal would need a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate before going to voters this November. Passage through the Legislature would require nearly every Republican to vote in favor if Democrats oppose the measure. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has no power to veto constitutional amendments.

The amendment aims to shut down future gun control legislation by establishing a fundamental right to own and use ammunition, firearm accessories and components alongside firearms. It requires courts to examine any restrictions on gun rights using a strict scrutiny standard.

The strict scrutiny standard – the same standard Kansas courts use to evaluate abortion restrictions – would set a high bar on any limits to gun rights. If challenged in court, attorneys for the state would have to prove any laws limiting gun rights were narrowly written to serve a “compelling government interest.”

The amendment would follow in the footsteps of four other states – Iowa, Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri – and is not the Legislature’s first attempt to weaken local governments’ authority to enforce and enact gun restrictions. In 2014, former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed a law blocking municipalities from restricting the open carry of guns, for instance.

Opponents of the bill worry that recent laws passed by the Legislature – such as a 2018 law prohibiting domestic violence offenders and those with protection orders against them from possessing firearms – and rules by local municipalities could be overturned.

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, pointed to a 2021 resolution passed by the Johnson County Board of Commissioners that holds gun owners accountable for stray bullets that leave their property. In her own district, Lenexa updated its city code in 2020 to make the “reckless or intentional” firing of weapons illegal.

She is concerned the amendment could “undo reasonable parameters” already put in place about who is allowed to carry guns, such as convicted felons.

“Maybe some of the laws do hold up to strict scrutiny,” said Hoye, who previously worked with Moms Demand Action, which advocates for gun limits and safety measures. “But that city’s going to have to pay to fight it. That’s gonna come at the cost of the taxpayers. The bottom line is that convicted felons could fight to get their guns back at the cost of the taxpayers.”

During the hearing in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, Kobach said the amendment would not change the firearm restrictions placed on domestic violence offenders and emphasized federal laws would prevent felons from possessing firearms unlawfully. He also told reporters that most laws enacted by local municipalities are not likely to be challenged under the amendment.

“In most situations, it doesn’t create additional litigation, it just adds another argument,” he said. “But it is conceivable that it could create a case that wasn’t there before.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican who sponsored the amendment, said the high legal standard would prompt a reevaluation of local gun ordinances but wouldn’t prevent policies designed to protect public safety.

“It’s not just about owning firearms,” he said. “It’s about ensuring our citizens have full access to the necessary tools for their lawful use.”

Violent crime is on the rise in Kansas – last year it was 17.5% above the 10-year average. Firearm deaths in children have nearly doubled over the past five years. The state’s firearm mortality is considerably higher than the national average.

Opponents of the amendment fear the amendment would create no clear avenue to the passage of gun control legislation, potentially putting Kansans in danger. Shannon Little, who is a Kansas leader with Moms Demand Action, said the amendment could make it nearly impossible to pass a gun law in the future that satisfies the strict scrutiny standard.

“Any Kansan who sees this on a ballot would say, ‘this is great, they’re expanding to components and ammunition,’” she told the Star.

“But strict scrutiny is going to be something that may pass over people’s notice. They may not immediately understand that that will prevent anything positive from happening with Kansas gun laws or making our communities safer.”

Proponents of the proposal, such as Rep. Rebecca Schmoe, an Ottawa Republican who sponsored the measure, cast doubt on the possibility of spurring a crisis.

“Would this be the same type of disaster predicted that didn’t happen with concealed carry? With constitutional carry? With 18 to 20 year olds? With the removal of the fees?” she said. “Are we going to see the same disaster in the community? Can any of you name a disaster we saw after any of those?”