Government & Politics

New Missouri laws make it easier to carry a gun and a small amount of pot

New Missouri laws that took effect Sunday include expanded gun rights, changes in the way crimes are prosecuted and stiffer penalties for some motorists convicted of drunken driving.

Most gun owners in the Show-Me State are now able to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

In separate legislation, the first overhaul of the state’s criminal code in 38 years features a variety of reforms, including the elimination of jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.

On the Kansas side, few new laws took hold on New Year’s Day because state lawmakers typically craft legislation effective July 1. One exception: Every insurance policy issued on Kansas vehicles this year must include at least $25,000 worth of liability coverage for property damage.

Here’s a breakdown of the new rules in Missouri:

Concealed carry

The right of most gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without needing a permit was among several laws that the General Assembly passed over vetoes by outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon.

The measure allows owners to avoid a state-approved training course previously required in obtaining a permit to carry.

Some public places, such as courtrooms and jails, are still off limits to concealed carry, but breaking that rule will be considered a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Private business may post signs prohibiting the carrying of firearms, and anyone who takes a concealed weapon into such an establishment could face a $500 fine and six months behind bars, said Gladstone lawyer Kevin Jamison, president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.

“I don’t think the sky’s going to fall,” Jamison said. “Previously you could carry a gun (without a permit) in your car; now you can get out of the car.”

The law also broadens “stand-your-ground” rights for people facing danger in a place they’re legally entitled to be present.

Opponents say the law makes Missouri less safe.

“Now there will be people among us when we’re out with our kids who are carrying concealed firearms without any training at all,” said Becky Morgan, leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Some of them could be dangerous people.”

Criminal code

It took lawmakers, attorneys and criminal-justice officials several years to research and propose updates to Missouri’s criminal code, which hadn’t been comprehensively addressed since 1979. In 2014 the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 491, hundreds of pages long.

“We wanted to have two full years so everyone could get trained for a smooth implementation in 2017,” said Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who then was a state senator sponsoring the bill. “Prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and law enforcement needed to be prepared.”

The revised code creates new classes of felonies and misdemeanors — including four levels of felony child molestation, with increased punishment for incest — and streamlines existing criminal statutes. By adding a fifth felony class, Class E, courts will have more sentencing options, Justus said.

The law reduces possible prison sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes. First-time offenders caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana will face fines but no jail time.

“Is that good enough? No,” said Jamie Kacz, executive director of the advocacy group NORML KC, which supports decriminalization of pot possession. “Is it a step in the right direction? Yes. It’ll keep people out of prison.”

Kansas Citians may see a further easing of marijuana laws. The City Council is evaluating a citizen petition that seeks a public vote on a proposal to decriminalize possession of less than 35 grams.

Criminal code revisions also allow for harsher prison sentences for “persistent offenders” of laws against driving while intoxicated. They will face up to two years in jail.

A misinterpretation of code changes in the definition of certain assault charges recently set off false alarms among St. Louis area school districts. News reports cited fears expressed by some administrators that a new level of felony assault would subject countless grade-school scufflers to felony charges.

The lower felony assault level does not do away with a misdemeanor assault charge, according to the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police in Kansas City. Nor does it change in any way how schools handle student fights and harassment, said Nancy Bowles, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

State law always held the possibility that a student acting egregiously could face a felony charge for a fight in which someone is injured. But “changes in the criminal code do not mean a 5-year-old is going to end up with a felony assault record” because of a classroom shoving match, said Elad Gross of the Education Exchange Corps, a St. Louis nonprofit dedicated to improving education opportunities for at-risk children.

Other new laws

▪ The Missouri Department of Social Services will begin this week to contract with a private company to check welfare recipients’ eligibility for benefits, including food stamps, child care, Medicaid and cash welfare payments. Although the new law calls for a private company to flag questionable cases for state employees to review further, department staff will still make a final determination of eligibility.

▪ Health insurers will be required to cover “medically necessary” mental and physical treatment of eating disorders provided by licensed experts under another new law. The goal is to ensure that families have access to care for not just the physical aspects of eating disorders, but also the underlying mental issues.

▪ Another law adds “bubble boy disease” to a list of conditions infants are screened for in Missouri. Severe combined immunodeficiency affects about one in 50,000 live births.

The screenings will only take place if lawmakers set aside enough money for tests.

The Star’s Mara Rose Williams and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r