BY DION LEFLER
Eagle Topeka bureau
A massacre half a continent away could reframe the debate on where Kansans can carry concealed handguns.
Lawmakers are expected as early as today to debate whether to override a governor's veto of a bill to establish a statewide standard for concealed carrying and override any local ordinances that exceed the state's rules.
House Bill 2528 passed both chambers by more than a two-thirds vote, and an override seemed certain two weeks ago.
But that was before the traumatic events April 16 on the campus of Virginia Tech University, where Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
The Kansas bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, said he believes the votes will still be there to override Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
"I wouldn't say it wouldn't make it any harder," Journey said. "It certainly will create a whole new set of discussions. But I believe we can work through them."
The bill passed the House 106-16, and proponents are unlikely to lose enough votes there to fail to reach the 83 they need to override the governor.
But the margin was narrower on the Senate side, 29-11, with 27 votes needed to override a veto.
At least one senator says the Virginia Tech killings have moved him from "yes" to undecided.
House Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he's heard the arguments from both sides -- gun control supporters' belief that easy access to firearms enables mass killers, and the counterargument that armed citizens may be able to stop such tragedies.
"I'm not sure how I feel about it," Hensley said. "I'm not sure how I'm going to vote."
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she was troubled by the Virginia Tech shootings but doesn't plan to change her earlier vote in favor of the bill.
She said she told her constituents she'd support concealed carry and sees the current bill as primarily a clarification of the law passed last year.
"Even if I don't particularly like all parts of the bill, there's not enough in it to go back on a promise," she said.
Sen. Donald Betts, D-Wichita, said he hopes the Virginia Tech example prompts other senators to reconsider their support for stripping local government of the right to regulate carrying a concealed firearm.
He said the bill passed last year has already caused problems in his district.
People there have been arrested for carrying firearms who didn't know the details of the law -- that they have to take a gun-safety class, undergo a background check and pay a permit fee.
"Many of them are people who heard through the grapevine, 'I can carry my gun,' " he said.
He said he thinks local governments, which are in more frequent contact with citizens, are better able to publicize their rules than the state is.
He voted against the bill and plans to vote to uphold the veto.
Rep. Dale Swenson, R-Wichita, said his constituents have responded differently -- and more favorably toward expanded gun rights -- than they did in the wake of previous shootings.
He said most of the messages he got after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado advocated stronger gun control. This time, e-mails have run almost unanimously in favor of relaxing controls to allow more guns for self-defense, he said.
He voted for the bill and said he plans to vote to override the veto.
While most of the debate on the bill has focused on the section overriding local gun control, a lesser-known provision of the bill addresses one of the issues that arose in the Virginia Tech tragedy, Journey said.
He said the bill expands the ability of state law enforcement officials to obtain treatment records from mental institutions, which should help prevent ineligible people from obtaining concealed gun permits.
A Virginia court declared in 2005 that Cho was mentally ill and dangerous to himself, but he was allowed to buy guns because the finding wasn't forwarded to the database used for federal background checks.
Reach Dion Lefler at The Eagle's Topeka bureau, 785-296-3006.