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Desperate To Stop Gun Violence, Westport Pushes For Private Sidewalks

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Council is considering a proposal to privatize the sidewalks in Westport in order to screen for guns, but critics worry about the implications of turning over public right-of-ways.

Westport has seen a major uptick in gun violence this year. 

According to stats collected by the Westport Regional Business League, there were 16 gun-related weapons offenses in the district in 2016. In 2017, there were 65 — and that's only through Oct. 31.

A Missouri law that took effect in January allows people to carry guns without a permit in nearly every public space, so there’s not much business owners or police can do to keep guns out.

A coalition of Westport business owners are behind a proposal to privatize the sidewalks in entertainment district. That would allow them to ban guns in the district and screen for them on busy weekend nights. 

The proposal has drawn criticism from members of the city council and from several community organizations, who fear screening for guns could put other civil liberties at risk. 

But Kim Kimbrough, director of the Westport Regional Business League, says they’re out of other ideas.

"We really don't have a Plan B, there isn't one. If there were one, that would be the direction we'd be going," Kimbrough says. 

Kimbrough says they’ve increased the number of police officers in the area and improved coordination between KCPD and private security, all to no avail.  

Missouri law says there's nothing an officer can do about a gun in a public space until it’s pulled or it goes off — but making the sidewalks private property would circumvent the state law.

If it were to pass, this measure would be unique 

Under the proposal, Westport would barricade sidewalks between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekend nights and for special festivals. To get in, people would have to pass through a metal detector to make sure they weren't carrying a gun. 

Such a sidewalk vacation (as it's technically called) isn't common. Lawyers for the WRBL haven't been able to give examples around the country where it's been implemented successfully. 

That worries Councilman Quinton Lucas. 

"I have some serious skepticism when we're creating a lot of new processes that deprive people of their rights. Their rights to traverse through a neighborhood, their rights to just go out on the town like anyone else," Lucas says. 

Lucas would like to see fewer firearms in dense areas like Westport, but he is cautious about turning over public infrastructure.

"When we start to transfer public space to private actor there is a question, and I hate slippery slopes, but there is this question as to where to we stop. Do we infringe speech, protest rights, do we infringe commercial rights for folks?"

Does screening for guns pave the way for racial discrimination? 

Kimbrough and other business owners in Westport say they don’t want to limit anyone’s right to gather and express themselves. He says Westport’s diversity is part of what makes it unique.

That was true for 30-year-old Phyllis Williams, who moved to Kansas City almost nine years ago. She says as a black woman in her early 20s, she was worried about finding a place that felt inclusive.

"Westport was a breath of fresh air, I remember walking into Firefly night club and hearing A Tribe Called Quest record and being like, 'OK, maybe Kansas City has a chance.'"

She says she still frequents Westport, but she’s worried about how that could change if she had to walk through a metal detector to get in.

"I think to go to a bar to have a beer and for that to be part of the experience, definitely would change my attitude of Westport." — Phyllis Williams, Westport patron

"I think to go to a bar to have a beer and for that to be part of the experience, definitely would change my attitude of Westport... It would definitely discourage my wanting to go to that district more regularly," Williams says. 

Williams says she understands that business owner just want to keep her and everyone else in the district safe. But she wants to be sure that screening for guns doesn’t alienate anyone.

Another Kansas City entertainment district, Power and Light, is still in court over allegations they were using a dress code to keep some black people out. 

Beau Williams (no relation to Phyllis) owns a whiskey bar in Westport. Testifying to a city council committee last month, he said none of this is worth it if it makes people feel unwelcome.  

"Please, please, please let’s change course if it starts restricting that diversity in our neighborhood and it starts restricting certain rights, infringing upon rights of our patrons."

The ordinance includes a provision that would allow the city to take back ownership of the sidewalks should they choose, although Lucas anticipates that once the sidewalks are turned over, it will be difficult to get enough votes from the city council to get them back. 

Supporters say the same civil rights protections the city abides by are written into the ordinance. The measure also includes additional safeguards, like promising to never implement a dress code. 

But with half a dozen people shot in the last year near the heart of Westport, including a homicide over the summer, bartenders and restaurant owners in the area are first and foremost worried about keeping their patrons alive. 

Chris Paone, longtime bartender at Kelly's, says knowing that there aren’t guns outside his bar could give him some peace of mind.

"I don't have to worry about a friend leaving the bar, or our staff leaving the bar," he says.

Right now, Paone says his staff leaves the bar in a group after closing the bar. 

Before advancing the measure along to the city council, the city plan commission received dozens of letter of opposition to the idea. BikeWalk KC also opposes the measure. 

So far, the measure has the support of the Ad Hoc group against crime and the KCPD Central Patrol division.

As of last week, the Urban League was still considering their position on the issue. 

Still, Lucas thinks there has better solution out there.

"Does that require us to have more investment of Kansas City, Missouri police officers in the area, does it requite us to go through better lighting types of issues? There needs to be this more holistic approach, I think, in connection to how we address the problem," Lucas says. 

"Because I will tell you this, I am not in favor of us just vacating streets and sidewalks around literally every district with some density in Kansas City, Missouri."

The city's planning, zoning and economic development committee will take up the issue on Wednesday. 

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3 Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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