Kansas gun and voting rights go to voters
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gun rights and mental health advocates are leaving nothing to chance this fall as they push for passage of two amendments to the Kansas Constitution.
One issue establishes that Kansans have an individual right to own a gun. The second removes language granting legislators the authority to deny voting rights to the mentally ill, though no laws currently exist.
On first blush, it would seem their concerns are unfounded, given that legislators had little trouble over the past two years in securing a spot for the measures on the Nov. 2 ballot. But the advocates say they don’t want voters to overlook either matter when they step forward to select from a slate of candidates for statewide and congressional offices.
“I personally consider this a no-brainer,” said Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association. “Nobody seems to have a problem with this.”
The guns issue can be traced to a 1905 Kansas Supreme Court ruling in the case of City of Salina v. Blakesly, where the justices upheld that a man convicted of possessing a firearm did not have the individual right to own a gun. The court ruled that “the people’s right” to bear arms was a collective right. Only standing militias were entitled to have firearms and only to be used in defense of the state.
But for generations, Kansans have owned rifles, shotguns and handguns, used for hunting and personal protection. In 2006, legislators overrode Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ veto to make concealed carry legal.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a District Columbia case that individuals have the right to bear arms, striking down a ban on handguns. But the case was not viewed as far-reaching because of D.C.‘s unique federal status. Then this June the high court struck down a Chicago handgun law, declaring that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense regardless of where they live.
Kansas legislators responded after the D.C. case by voting to put the fix to the state constitution to voters.
Stoneking said the rifle association is putting out fliers and bumper stickers to let gun owners and other Kansans know about the ballot issue and drum up support.
“In my mind, what this really is is clean up work. It’s making sure our constitution is clear,” Stoneking said.
Richard Levy, a law professor at the University of Kansas, said he wasn’t aware of a wave of state initiatives to change constitutions. He said even if states lack specific constitutional guarantees to the individual right to bear arms, the federal constitution does, providing protection for citizens.
“The federal constitutional right sets the minimum,” Levy said. “States might give greater rights than the federal constitution.”
For example, states may specify greater rights for carrying concealed weapons, licensing of firearms or necessary training. Levy said future federal regulations were likely to be forthcoming because of the federal ruling, but how the U.S. Supreme Court would react is unknown.
“The question would be floor versus ceiling perception,” he said.
The second question concerns voting rights and removes what Sheli Sweeney of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas considers “archaic.”
It would change Section 2 of Article 5 to remove language granting the Legislature the authority to deny voting rights to the mentally ill, along with convicted felons and individuals in prison. Kansans changed the section of the law in the 1970s when the constitution was last updated on a grand scale, but left the mental health exception.
Sweeney said had the changes been made later in the decade the mental health exception also would have been nixed. Mental illness was just beginning to be understood, leading to changes in treatment and diagnosis that otherwise would have led to a “hospital sentence” for residents.
“We were just on the cusp of understanding,” Sweeney said.
Levy said the mental illness provision change “may be important for making a political statement and symbolism.”
“It’s not really an issue until the Legislature tries to exercise that power. It seems like it would be pretty difficult to do that at this juncture,” he said.
The federal courts have held that voting is a fundamental right, he said, and attempts to deny those rights are going to be scrutinized and found invalid.
The association is not taking the passage of time for granted and will be conducting a statewide education campaign to let voters know why the revision is needed.
“A voter with mental illness doesn’t mean someone who is in a state hospital, but someone with anxiety, depression, a soldier coming back with (post traumatic stress disorder). It’s our grandparents and our neighbors,” she said.
Sweeney said Kansas isn’t the only state with such provisions “but one of the few.” However she said every constitution protects the right to vote for residents with disabilities which would override attempts to block the mentally ill.
She said the association was glad the amendment was listed second behind the guns measure. Advocates haven’t set a goal for percentage of voters approving the change, but Sweeney said they were hoping for better than 60 percent.
“We don’t think it’s going to be an easy one, because people who have not had it explained to them won’t understand it,” Sweeney said. “The first question is also a ‘yes’ question and we hope to build momentum off that.”