Profiles in courage are blurry in the Missouri legislature

08/01/2013 1:09 PM

08/03/2013 5:31 PM

Listen carefully, and you can hear the chatter in the Missouri legislature.

Well, sure, I know that bill we passed nullifying federal gun laws in the state is unconstitutional as all get out. Arresting federal agents for enforcing gun laws passed by Congress? Dumbest idea yet, which is saying a lot for us. But hey, don’t look at me to get rid of it.

So goes the thinking as the annual veto session draws near. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has vetoed 29 bills, including one that declares federal gun control laws null and void in the Show-Me State, and makes criminals out of federal agents who attempt to enforce them.

It looks like the legislature may override the governor’s veto, thanks to a bipartisan alliance of lawmakers who are genuinely unhinged by the notion of sensible gun safety measures and others who are simply too gutless to stand up to gun enthusiasts.

“It’s not worth the fight for me to vote against it,” Rep. T.J. McKenna, a Democrat from Festus, told The Associated Press. “The bill is completely unconstitutional,” he added, “so the courts are going to have to throw it out.”

Other Democrats and moderate Republicans have said the same thing. Better to blatantly violate your oath of office (which begins: “I do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will support the Constitution of the United States....”) than to take the heat for a tough vote.

This is one of the many mysteries of the Missouri legislature. What is it about being a state legislator that turns formerly solid citizens into walking vats of quivering jelly?

Can those $36,000-a-year jobs — plus a per diem allowance, of course — really be worth one’s honor? Granted, there are perks from lobbyists and nearly always an appetizing-looking free buffet in the Capitol. But still.

Missouri has moved a long distance away from the concept of a citizen legislature — ordinary folks who take five months out of their year to spend part of the week in Jefferson City grappling with tough issues and crafting smart laws for the rest of us. The best of the elected representatives really do operate that way, but they are rare.

Too many of the lawmakers are professional politicians, with most of their identity wrapped up in being a representative or senator. It’s hard enough for them to contemplate life after term limits. The thought of actually losing an election is nearly too much to bear.

Principled stands haven’t completely disappeared from the Missouri legislature. Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City, told the AP he opposed an override of Nixon’s veto of the gun bill. “Our Constitution is not a Chinese buffet, which we like and do not like,” he said.

Barnes, a second-term representative who has developed a reputation for taking on tough issues, is a lawyer, and presumably a good one. His independent streak may not sit well with Republican legislative leaders, but showing a knowledge and respect for the Constitution should enhance his prospects in the legal profession.

Gun-rights champions can be wrathful. In Colorado, they gathered enough signatures to force September recall elections for two state senators who voted for a law requiring background checks at gun shows and limits on rounds in magazines.

Such prudent measures would be beyond the capability of Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature at the moment. Far from debating ways to protect the public, Missouri lawmakers struggle to muster the courage to reject an unconstitutional bill that does little but feed into the paranoia of anti-Washington extremists.

Look at the big picture, ladies and gentlemen of the legislature. Your vote on the gun nullification bill may or may not affect your next election. Either way, your life will go on. So will the state of Missouri.

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