Gun in Capitol restroom renews talk about tightening Missouri laws

10/14/2013 7:53 PM

10/14/2013 7:53 PM

A loaded handgun left in a public restroom of the Missouri Capitol has already cost a legislative staffer his job.

It has also sparked hope among advocates of stricter gun control that the door may have opened, if just slightly, for a conversation about the state’s gun laws.

“There was such a gross display of negligence, and it highlighted a major problem in Missouri,” said Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat. “I’d like to believe it will lead to action.”

But she acknowledges that’s a tough sell in a legislature whose focus over the last decade has been to scale back, not ramp up, regulations on gun ownership.

Indeed, both Republicans and Democrats agree the gun debate in 2014 will likely pick up where it left off in 2013, with lawmakers attempting to nullify federal gun laws and amend the state’s constitution to strengthen gun rights.

Late last month Missouri Capitol police found a handgun atop a toilet paper dispenser in a Capitol basement restroom. According to the police report, the Kahr CM9 9 mm pistol was “fully loaded with one round in the chamber and six rounds in the magazine.” All the rounds were hollow-point bullets.

About an hour after the gun was discovered, a secretary for House Speaker Tim Jones called police to say it belonged to a member of his staff. The gun was returned to the owner after it was determined he had no warrants or criminal history. A Missouri law passed in 2011 allows elected officials and their employees to carry concealed firearms inside the Capitol if they have permits, so the staffer had not violated any laws.

The staffer resigned anyway this month, citing the attention from the incident as his reason.

Newman said she’d like to see the 2011 law revisited, or at the very least to have a discussion about Capitol security. Unlike at most state buildings, lawmakers, employees and visitors of the Missouri Capitol come and go through numerous unlocked doors without passing through any visible security measures.

Rep. Eric Burlison, a Springfield Republican, said he feels safer knowing that lawmakers and their staffs are allowed to have guns. He is one of several lawmakers with signs on their office windows that say: “Notice: Lawfully concealed weapons are encouraged on these premises.”

Rather than restricting concealed weapons in the Capitol, Burlison said he’d prefer to talk about expansion. Although elected officials and their staffs may carry firearms, the public is still not allowed.

“I’d be open to having that discussion,” he said. “Allowing concealed carry in the Capitol is a deterrent to anyone who would want to come in the building and do harm. I think it makes the building a safer place.”

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, agrees that expanding concealed carry in the Capitol would make it a safer place to work. The topic of guns can be emotional for some people, he said, but the right to bear arms is enumerated in the state and U.S. constitutions, “and even if you don’t like that, it’s a right that deserves the same level of protection as all our other enumerated rights.”

Trying to pass legislation to stop people from being irresponsible or negligent isn’t going to work, he said.

“Safety is always an issue, and you hope people are responsible,” he said. “But you can’t protect everyone from everything by legislating everything possible.”

The last 10 years have seen victory after victory for gun-rights advocates. In 1999, Missouri voters rejected a ballot measure creating concealed-carry permits. Four years later, Republicans, having just won control of the legislature for the first time in decades, teamed with rural Democrats to overturn that vote.

This year a bipartisan group of legislators voted to allow state employees to store firearms in their vehicles while on state property.

The most high-profile gun bill of the 2013 session was an attempt to nullify federal gun laws and criminalize their enforcement. It won legislative approval but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. Although there was enough support for an override in the House, it fell one vote shy in the Senate.

Supporters have vowed to push for the bill’s passage again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“I think some of the concerns expressed about the bill will be addressed, and we’ll pass it once again,” said Sen. Ed Emery, a Lamar Republican.

Key among the changes, Emery said, is removal of a section of the bill that would have made it a misdemeanor to publish the identities of gun owners, a provision critics contend infringed on First Amendment rights of free speech and press.

The push for the nullification bill in Missouri picked up steam early in the 2013 legislative session after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. President Barack Obama responded to the shooting by announcing a series of measures targeting gun violence through executive order and calling on Congress to pass measures to require universal background checks for gun purchases.

Emery said concern over the idea that the federal government could overstep its constitutional authority helped build support for the nullification bill, and that same concern continues to exist today.

Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat, said the bill clearly demonstrated where the General Assembly is on the issue of guns.

“There was an atrocity, where children were gunned down in an elementary school, and the legislature’s response was to nullify federal gun laws,” he said. “You don’t get much more extreme than that.”

Schaefer said one of his main legislative priorities next year will be an amendment to the Missouri Constitution to define the right to bear arms as “unalienable” and require the state to defend against any “infringement” of that right. The bill passed the Senate early in the year but didn’t clear the House until the final day of the legislative session. By then it had been amended, Schaefer said, and he ran out of time.

If he’s successful this year, the amendment would be on the November 2014 ballot.

As for how lawmakers should respond to the House staff member who left his gun in the Capitol bathroom, Burlison said the case is an example of the system working as it should.

“An employee was careless and irresponsible, and that employee lost their job,” Burlison said. “I think it sends a message to other employees that if you are irresponsible, there will be consequences, and that will lead to more gun safety.”

Newman fears the consequences next time could be grave.

“What if that gun had been found by a student visiting the Capitol on a school tour?” Newman asked. “Negligence like that can lead to tragedy.”

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