Frustrated by what he sees as the Missouri legislature’s opposition to gun control, Kansas City Mayor Sly James is trying to take aim at gun violence through a different strategy.
Copying a page from other big city mayors, James is urging the city and police pension boards not to invest in any firearms manufacturers.
“I’m not anti-gun,” James told the City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee on Wednesday. “I’m anti-stupidity and illegal guns.”
Several council members praised James for sending a symbolic message to stop the violence, but critics said it is an empty gesture — at least two of the biggest funds hold no such investments anyway.
But James said he is asked every day what he is doing to address the epidemic of gun violence.
He pointed out that 48 of the city’s 56 homicides so far this year were committed with handguns, and said the Missouri legislature’s aggressive gun rights agenda impedes his ability to get illegal guns off the streets. But there is one thing the city can do, he urged his council colleagues.
“We can direct how our funds are used,” he said. “Don’t invest in things that might be instruments of our demise.”
James’ proposal follows Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s success earlier this year in persuading a $5 billion pension fund to divest from gun manufacturers. New York State’s main public pension fund and California’s teachers fund also have divested from or frozen their gun investments, as have other large city and state funds, according to press reports.
James’ proposal is more modest. It is simply a resolution, without the power of law, that asks the boards of the city employees, firefighters, police and police civilian pension systems to investigate and consider adopting policies against investing in gun manufacturing companies.
The city employees and firefighters pension funds have a market value of close to $1.4 billion, but neither fund currently has any direct investments in securities of firearms manufacturers, according to Rick Boersma, the retirement systems’ executive officer.
Jim Pyle, executive officer of the two police pension funds, could not be reached for comment on whether those funds have gun manufacturing investments.
The Finance Committee voted 4-1 in support of James’ proposal, which the full council will consider July 25.
Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo said her family has always included hunters, and she supports Second Amerndment rights. But she said extremist views have made it impossible for cities to have a reasonable, balanced conversation about gun violence.
“The extreme is being pushed by the very people who make money from purchases of guns,” she said. “Who is making money off all this madness?”
But Councilman John Sharp, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee, voted against the mayor’s resolution and said he doesn’t see how it will have any meaningful impact on public safety because the city’s pension systems don’t invest in gun manufacturers anyway.
In fact, Sharp said people will see it as just plain anti-gun, and that could be counter-productive. He fears it would further alienate Missouri legislators and would make it difficult to convince them that if they give Kansas City more authority over firearms, the city will use that authority responsibly.
Sharp said he still hopes to persuade the legislature to eliminate a loophole in the state’s concealed carry law that allows people to carry loaded concealed guns within reach in their cars, without a permit.
James responded that he would help Sharp lobby to eliminate that loophole, but he holds out little hope for a state legislature that passed 35 bills in the last session to expand gun rights.
James has complained in the past that state law constrains Kansas City from enacting laws to make the city safer. He’d like to require universal background checks for all gun sales and transfers; impose mandatory reporting and identification of stolen guns; enact limitations on guns in cars; create gun courts to swiftly prosecute suspects who use illegal guns in criminal acts; and ban assault weapons in vehicle passenger compartments.
Previous city councils have sought similar exceptions to state gun laws — and have failed.
At a news conference this week in Kansas City, Gov. Jay Nixon conceded it was highly unlikely the current legislature would give cities more discretion in gun laws and regulations.
“I’m open to discuss what can make the streets safer,” Nixon told reporters, but he noted lawmakers had passed legislation attempting to prevent enforcement of federal gun restrictions, a measure he vetoed.
Gladstone attorney Kevin Jamison, spokesman for the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, said Wednesday that Kansas City can and does have plenty of gun regulations, and is allowed to as long as they are not more restictive than state law. And he said there’s good reason for that.
“It’s to prevent a patchwork of conflicting regulations across the state,” he said.
Jamison also said gun manufacturers don’t play a significant role in Missouri politics and he would be opposed to the mayor’s pension investment proposal.
“He wants to micromanage investments for political purposes,” Jamison said of the mayor. “That doesn’t do very well for the pension plan. If I was involved with the pension plan, I’d want him to stay out of it.”
State lawmakers will not look kindly on the city’s divestiture effort, predicted state Rep. Mike Cierpiot, a Republican from Lee’s Summit.
“It doesn’t do much good in the long run,” he said. “We have a very liquid market, and if they divest, other people will move in. ... It’s more about symbolism.”
Cierpiot also pointed out that the gun rights stance in the Missouri legislature has strong support, even from Democrats.
“Even though Kansas City and St. Louis are very heavily Democrat,” he said, “there are still a lot of gun owners there, people who take the Second Amendment very seriously.”
Even as the City Council debates gun policy, police are doing what they can to get the flood of guns off the street, said Maj. Ron Fletcher, division commander for East Patrol, the city’s most violent sector.
Fletcher told the public safety committee Wednesday that police have a new strategy of embedding a detective with patrol units, which allows them to get search warrants much more quickly. He said officers citywide have recovered 300 guns so far this year, including 110 from East Patrol. That’s up from 99 at this same time last year in East Patrol.
“Every gun that’s off the streets is one less used for an aggravated assault or homicide,” Fletcher said.