After six years in office and countless trips to Missouri’s Capitol, Kansas City Mayor Sly James continues to make a regular pilgrimage to the statehouse to lobby lawmakers on gun violence in the urban core.
The mayor has regularly tussled with lawmakers on guns, most notably last year when he drew the ire of Missouri Republicans by saying they were poised to “double down on stupid” by eliminating training and permit requirements to carry a concealed gun in public.
Navigating the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly — where legislators are loath to consider anything that could be viewed as a restriction on gun rights — used to leave James feeling frustrated.
But after a Missouri House hearing last week on legislation to establish a specialized gun court in Jackson County, James said that feeling of frustration has long since passed.
“I’m not frustrated anymore, primarily because I’m used to it now,” he said. “I don’t expect much, and I’m not getting much. More than anything, I’m saddened.”
The mayor, the Kansas City Police Department and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker lent their support last week to the gun court legislation. It’s an idea they’ve been pressing for several years. If approved, the Jackson County Circuit Court could dedicate judges and manpower to a special docket that would handle all matters related to weapons offenses and robbery in the first degree.
To defray the costs, offenders would pay an extra $30 fee.
Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican who has sponsored the legislation for three years, said one key selling point of the idea is that cases involving gun crimes can be moved more quickly through the process.
“As cases languish, they become harder to bring to trial,” Corlew said. “You lose witnesses. If the defendant is out on the street, a witness could be intimidated.”
The bill got a somewhat rocky reception from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. And even its supporters acknowledged that when last year’s gun law kicked in Jan. 1, and a permit was no longer required to carry a concealed weapon, much of the impetus behind the gun court disappeared.
The majority of cases the gun court was designed to handle in an expedited fashion would have been illegal possession of a firearm, Baker said. The goal, she said, was to get to a person before they committed an act of violence in hopes of figuring out what they needed to get back on the right path.
“It was a huge opportunity to grab ahold of a young person before they acted,” she said. “Those are such important cases that I don’t have anymore. They’ve been made legal. So here we are. It’s an odd place to be. It’s no longer against the law for those young people who carry without going through the legal process.”
James told the committee that the city had 128 homicides last year, most of which involved guns. There have been 23 homicides so far this year.
In 2015, Kansas City had 250 drive-by shootings, James said. Last year: 384.
“We are awash with guns. We are awash with violence. We are awash with problems,” James said. “All I’m looking to do, all any mayor in this country is looking to do, is to find allies to help us bring the level of violence down.”
While the House committee was sympathetic to James’ plight, several members questions whether a specialized docket just for gun crimes would have any impact on gun violence. Others questioned adding a $30 fee on top of court costs that already can run close to $300.
Michael Barrett, director of the state’s public defender system, said he appreciates what James is trying to do. But the public defender’s office is already chronically underfunded, he said, and lawmakers shouldn’t “create another docket I have to appear in front of without funding.”
Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, a Hallsville Republican, told the committee the violence plaguing Kansas City and other urban cities isn’t taking place in her community.
“We don’t have the same problems in our town, but we have a lot of churches and no bars,” she said. “A lot of the violence is a heart problem, not a gun or a knife problem.”
Baker pushed back on that idea, saying crime is driven by a variety of factors.
“Most people aren’t driven with an evil heart,” she said. “They commit crimes for a whole basket of reasons that led them to that decision.”