- Associated Press - Thursday, June 1, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas legislators approved a bill Thursday to keep concealed guns out of public hospitals and mental health centers, and handed the National Rifle Association and its state allies their first big political defeat in years.

The House vote Thursday evening was 91-33, coming hours after the Senate approved the measure, 24-16. It goes next to conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong gun-rights supporter.

Several GOP legislators said Brownback would veto it, but the governor declined to say what language he supports. Supporters had more than the two-thirds majority needed in the House to override a veto but were three votes short in the Senate.

The bill is a response to a midsummer deadline to either approve costly security upgrades at the state’s two mental hospitals and its two hospitals for the developmentally disabled or allow concealed weapons into their buildings. Other public hospitals, community mental health centers, some nursing homes, the University of Kansas Health System and the university’s teaching hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, face the same deadline. So do state universities.

A 2013 law enacted by gun-rights majorities in the Legislature said gun owners could bring their concealed weapons into public buildings if those buildings didn’t have “adequate” security such as guards and metal detectors. It gave universities, public hospitals and other health care facilities a four-year exemption that ends July 1, and the bill would make the exemption permanent for the public health care facilities but not universities, where the pro-gun policy appears especially unpopular.

“This focuses on protecting patients and employees of the mental health hospitals and other hospitals and those kinds of facilities,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a moderate Sedgwick Republican.

Gun-rights advocates have enjoyed a long string of legislative victories with Brownback as governor. For example, Kansas no longer requires gun owners to obtain a state permit to carry a concealed weapon.

But the GOP-controlled Legislature felt compelled to consider a bill dealing with hospitals after Brownback proposed last month that the cash-strapped state spend $24 million over two years on security upgrades at its hospital for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Legislators have so far refused to approve the spending.

The NRA and other gun-rights advocates wanted to ensure that gun owners could still bring concealed guns into some areas in public health care facilities. Private institutions can ban them.

Brownback held talks between gun-rights advocates, University of Kansas Health System officials and the Kansas Hospital Association in hopes of brokering a compromise. Despite Brownback’s gun-rights leanings, his administration wants to avoid costly security upgrades at state hospitals.

“I thought we were getting close,” Brownback said before the debate. “It just didn’t work out.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, offered the NRA’s proposal to limit the exemption to the state hospitals, community mental health centers and the University of Kansas Health System, and only to restricted areas.

But the Senate voted 24-16 against her amendment, with some of the strongest opposing comments coming from Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican.

Gun-rights supporters argued that allowing health care facilities to ban concealed guns would not deter criminals from bringing in weapons. Without added security, they said, others will be defenseless.

“It’s a false sense of security just to put a ‘no guns allowed’ sticker on the front door,” said NRA lobbyist Travis Couture-Lovelady, a former Kansas House member. “The only people who follow that rule are the law-abiding citizens, and you’re disarming them without disarming the criminal.”

But legislators were also facing pressure on the other side. Members of the Moms Demand Action group, wearing red T-shirts and lobbying for what they view as commonsense guns laws, are seeking an exemption for universities, as are others.

“A student should not have to be accidentally shot first before we realized the damage that is being done by the guns on campus,” said Kwanequa Jones, a recent Washburn University of Topeka graduate.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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