Some foresaw the second coming of bleeding Kansas.
But almost six years and 50,000 concealed-carry licenses later, concerns about allowing Kansans to hit the streets packing heat in their pockets and purses have proved largely unfounded.
While there have been instances of permit holders being charged with gun-related crimes, Kansas has been spared any high-profile spasms of violence.
Since 2007 when Kansans began to legally carry concealed guns, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has chronicled 350 incidents across the country where 471 people were killed by someone with a concealed-carry permit in shootings that were not self-defense.
None of those incidents occurred in Kansas, according to the center’s database.
In Johnson County, where more than 8,600 people have obtained concealed-carry permits, prosecutors say they can recall only one case where a legal permit holder has faced criminal charges.
While the state’s homicide rate has remained constant since 2007, according to statistics compiled by the FBI, the rate of other violent crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault has decreased significantly.
Those who fought for years to give Kansans the right to carry concealed firearms say they never expected anything else.
“They are not out to be cowboys,” Patricia Stoneking said of the vast majority of people who have availed themselves of the opportunity. “They are law-abiding, responsible folks who take the responsibility of gun ownership very seriously.”
Stoneking, a licensed firearms instructor and president of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said she has trained thousands of people since the Kansas Legislature enacted the concealed-carry law in 2006 over the veto of then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“I have yet to meet one person who has displayed any propensity to want to use it unless they had to defend themselves or their family,” she said.
Even some who worried about what would happen when thousands of people began carrying weapons in public now concede that there have been few problems.
“Has it turned out OK?” said former Kansas Sen. Tim Owens of Overland Park, who lost his election to a new Senate seat last month. “Probably.”
But even as the once-contentious concealed-carry issue has evolved into a routine fact of life, some communities in Johnson County are now confronting a new gun issue: Open carry.
Although open carry has been legal in Kansas since statehood, some cities, like Overland Park enacted municipal ordinances making it illegal. Overland Park did so in 2007.
But faced with a 2011 legal opinion from the attorney general that cities can’t ban the open carry of weapons, and pushed by the Libertarian Party of Kansas, cities like Overland Park are now grappling with how to best regulate the practice.
Owens, for one, is concerned about the “wild west” image evoked by people walking the streets with holstered weapons visible on their hips.
“I just don’t get how people arrived at that mindset,” he said.
The fight to allow concealed carry in Kansas was a long one.
After previous proposed laws were vetoed by both Republican and Democratic governors, the Legislature in 2006 mustered enough votes to overcome a veto by Sebelius. The state began taking applications in the middle of that year, and in January 2007 residents began carrying weapons legally.
People seeking a permit must apply at their county sheriff’s office. The fee for a license is $132.50.
Those with convictions for felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence crimes are excluded, as is anyone who is the subject of a current protection from abuse or restraining order.
Applicants also are required to complete an eight-hour firearms training course from a licensed instructor. The cost for those courses are set by the instructor and generally run from $75 to $150.
Applications are forwarded to the attorney general’s office, which issues the permits. The permits are good for four years.
As part of the law, the attorney general is required to file annual reports listing the number of applications granted and denied as well as those suspended or revoked.
In its most recent report, the attorney general’s office said it issued 8,295 licenses in fiscal year 2011. Twenty-five licenses were denied, 16 because of the applicant’s criminal record.
During the same time period, 39 licenses were suspended because of criminal charges being filed. Twelve of those were revoked after convictions, and nine were reinstated after the charges were dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.
Seven of those suspensions involved charges of aggravated assault with a firearm, according to the attorney general’s office.
Authorities revoked 127 licenses during the year. Most of those were because the licensee moved out of state. But five were after convictions for carrying a firearm while intoxicated, and one was for attempted aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.
The interest in obtaining concealed-carry licenses appears to be growing in Johnson County and across the state.
The Johnson County sheriff’s office said it has received nearly 9,000 applications since the law was passed.
And with more than 1,800 so far this year, 2012 has already surpassed the highest number of applications in a single year.
That mirrors a statewide trend, with the attorney general’s office reporting more than 12,000 applications received during fiscal year 2012. That averaged about 49 applications each working day, and this fall in the first three months of the new fiscal year, the attorney general’s office reports it has seen an average of about 55 requests each day.
Becky Bieker, owner of She’s A Pistol, a gun store in Shawnee, has certainly noticed the increases in sales and in people wanting to take firearms training classes.
“It’s that training that has made it (concealed carry) work so well,” she said. “I think it would have been a big issue without it.”
Bieker said the increased demand has been driven in part from concerns about President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Stoneking agreed that that increased interest stems from uncertainty about the political climate.
“People are more aware and concerned about what is going on around them,” she said.
Incidents like the theater shooting in Colorado also have an affect on people’s sense of safety. Stoneking said there’s no way to know if someone with a gun would have made a difference in that situation or others like it.
“But you sure have better odds with one than without one,” she said. “People don’t want to be at some criminal’s mercy.”
Chris Malcolm, an Overland Park resident, is one of those motivated by a sense of personal safety to obtain a concealed-carry permit. He also convinced his wife, who had never fired a gun before, to take the training course with him.
Malcolm said he was concerned about her safety when he traveled out of town on business.
“I wanted her to be comfortable with handling a gun,” he said.
Malcolm said he has no desire to ever use his gun, but wants to have the option if forced to defend himself.
“I definitely don’t want to take somebody’s life,” he said. “But I don’t want somebody taking mine.”
Malcolm did his firearms training with Mike Mosher, a police officer in Johnson County who operates Tactical Simulation Solutions, a private firearms training business that offers training on a video simulator that replicates real-life scenarios.
Mosher said he developed the program after finding that the basic eight-hour class, while good, was lacking in providing people with an understanding of having to make a life-and-death decision.
“It puts them in situations where they have to decide to shoot or don’t shoot,” he said. “It gives them something to think about.”
Malcolm said he found the simulator training very beneficial and helped emphasize the idea of being aware of your surroundings at all times.
As an advocate for gun rights, Stoneking supports allowing people to openly carry weapons in public.
She’s just not interested in doing it herself.
“I personally like the element of surprise,” she said.
Malcolm also said he’s not interested in carrying a gun openly.
“It just advertises to people that you’re carrying,” he said.
Unlike the concealed-carry law, the open-carry ordinance passed by the Overland Park City Council in September made no provisions for a training class or any type of licensing requirement.
City officials said they acted to forestall legal action by the Libertarian Party of Kansas.
But after a large amount of negative feedback from citizens, council members asked the city legal department to consider requiring the same kind of restrictions on open carry as those for concealed carry.
Jim Hix, a council member and chairman of the city’s public safety committee, said he believed that would be a reasonable way to address public concerns without curtailing the rights of law-abiding citizens who choose to carry a weapon.
But after discussing the possible changes at a Nov. 14 public safety committee meeting, council members on the committee decided to seek an additional opinion from the attorney general’s office.
“Whatever we do, we want to do it right,” Hix said at the meeting that night.
Overland Park resident J.R. Kinsella was one of those who attended the public safety committee meeting that night. Kinsella, who owns guns and has been a lifelong hunter, thinks people walking the streets armed “is just silly.”
“Just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe,” he said. “I feel very uneasy being around somebody who is carrying a gun.”
To Owens, who served on the Overland Park City Council before being elected to the Kansas House and later the state Senate, the fact that the topic is even being debated is exasperating.
With his military background, Owens said he is familiar with and has nothing against guns per se.
It’s just that he thinks the whole idea that people in Johnson County need weapons to protect themselves from crime is unfounded.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety out there,” he said.
But in the “overall scheme of things,” the odds of being a crime victim in Johnson County are pretty slim, he said.
Owens quoted Franklin Roosevelt when discussing the situation: “All we have to fear is fear itself.”
But for Robin Witt, a Merriam resident who obtained her concealed-carry permit this summer, crime is not just theoretical.
Her adult daughter, who lives in Overland Park, has been the victim of a home break-in and her car has been stolen. That prompted Witt to put aside her fear of guns and sign herself and her daughter up for the eight-hour training course.
“I had never shot a gun before. Never even held one,” Witt said. “Now if I need to protect myself I know how to. I’m not scared anymore.”
She said she has no problem with people being allowed to openly carry a gun, but she thinks they should be subject to criminal background checks and at least receive the same kind of training required of concealed-carry permit holders.
“There are so many people who shouldn’t be who are out walking around” with guns, she said.
Owens agrees that anyone carrying a weapon in public should have training, although he thinks the eight-hour course is just a bare minimum.
He agrees with Mosher that before someone makes the decision to carry a gun, they have to consider the ramifications of using it.
“They have to understand what it would take to really do that,” Owens said. “It affects you.”
But to Stoneking, the right to defend oneself is an absolute right. Those who have chosen to carry weapons are taking personal responsibility for their own protection, she said.
“Do we want to legislate personal responsibility?” she said.
Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning said that the advent of concealed carry has been a “non-issue” from a law officer’s perspective.
He said officers on the street have always had to be cautious because they never know if they are dealing with a criminal who is carrying a gun illegally. Those people are not going to bother with complying with the law are the ones who pose a risk to officers.
“The citizens who choose to legally exercise their Second Amendment rights, who go through the training, don’t pose a threat to the police,” he said.
Likewise with the open-carry issue, Denning doesn’t foresee any problems.
“We haven’t seen any before,” he said. “And I don’t think we’ll see any now.”
To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.