About this time last year, I joined law enforcement officials around the state to warn the Missouri General Assembly that it was about to approve language with potentially deadly consequences.
The legislature didn’t listen then, and now it’s poised to make things worse.
Last year, the legislature passed and voters approved a change to the state’s Constitution through Amendment 5. The language appeared to do little beyond supporting our right to bear arms, yet it did much more.
While law-abiding Missourians got no benefit, because we were already guaranteed our right to bear arms, others stood much to gain. My warnings were aimed at language in the amendment making it potentially legal for some of the most dangerous individuals, including convicted drug dealers and gang members, to legally carry firearms.
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During my entire career as a prosecutor, we have used these laws to protect public safety by placing these criminals behind bars. It’s unthinkable to give them new rights to carry dangerous weapons. It will only threaten the safety of law-abiding citizens and our communities.
As predicted, St. Louis circuit court judges have recently ruled that the state could not prohibit a felon from possessing firearms, citing the new constitutional language. Adding to the uncertainty, the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear a request by prosecutors to overturn one of those rulings.
One of the key problems in the amendment is that it failed to define “violent” offenders.
The legislators recently began to focus on some proposals to “fix” the problem they created. In Jefferson City, House bills 1220 and 373 suggest limiting the charge of felon in possession of a gun to only what they call “violent” offenders.
But in another disturbing setback, the legislature defines “violent” much differently than the average Missourian. In at least one of the “fixes” these offenders (and others) can legally possess a weapon:
▪ A documented gang member convicted of a drive-by shooting is not included.
▪ A domestic violence abuser who recklessly shoots his victim isn’t deemed violent enough.
▪ A one-time or even a 10-time convicted drug dealer is not deemed violent (that’s right, him, too).
▪ And convicted burglars will be allowed to carry a gun, so they’ll be protected even if you are not.
Here’s another benefit for criminals in one of these “fixes.” Violent felons, including armed robbers, kidnappers and murderers, can get their guns back. They can have their privilege to possess a gun restored if they meet a few simple qualifications.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer stated last year that his Amendment 5 would not lead to violent felons getting their guns back. Recently, he suggested the newly proposed legislative fixes are unnecessary. Instead, he suggested the appeals courts could fix it.
This is leadership? Pass laws that bring you some political benefit, even if they pose a danger to the public. Then hope the courts fix them.
Here’s what should happen: Legislators should send back to voters a new constitutional amendment that fixes the mess they created. This time, they should be mindful that words matter. They must make certain we keep guns away from truly dangerous criminals.
Otherwise, the Missouri General Assembly is certain to put more guns in the hands of more felons at the risk of every citizens’ safety while tying the hands of prosecutors.
Jean Peters Baker is Jackson County prosecutor.