Government & Politics

Missouri law lets domestic abusers have guns. Legislators are trying to change that

State Rep. Donna Lichtenegger knows the toll violence can take.

Growing up, she watched her mother get beaten. And the Jackson Republican has two scars of her own from when she was assaulted by a man in the middle of the night.

“No matter who you are, people should not hurt you,” Lichtenegger said.

That’s why Lichtenegger is sponsoring a bill that would restrict people with misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence from having access to guns. For the second year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to close a loophole that was created after lawmakers overrode then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto and legalized concealed carry without a permit in 2016.

At the time, lawmakers knew that removing required criminal background checks and gun safety training classes would give people with a history of domestic violence access to guns, said Rep. Tracy McCreery, a St. Louis Democrat who is sponsoring a similar version of the bill.

“That year on the House floor was quite emotional. People from both sides of the aisle said that they recognized that we were creating a loophole,” McCreery said, “and there was a commitment on both sides of the aisle that we would come back and close that loophole.”

But attempts by lawmakers last year didn’t gain traction and faced opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Williamstown Republican and sponsor of the 2016 bill that loosened Missouri’s gun laws, said he was told at the time that the gap created wasn’t significant.

“When I visited with some attorneys, they said really it’s not a big loophole,” Munzlinger said. “That actually the judges have power now to do as they may to prevent those people from owning some guns. I don’t think that there’s immediate action taken right now or needed.”

Lawmakers who vowed to close the gap view the debate as an urgent issue of public safety rather than one focused on Second Amendment rights.

“I’m hopeful that my colleagues will realize … that working to close a loophole that prevents domestic abusers from having a firearm is not anti-Second Amendment,” McCreery said. “That we’re actually doing what we were sent here to do, which is to protect our constituents and support public safety.”

If passing a law will help prevent homicides, Missouri lawmakers should do that, said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“Women are paying the price for not having that law with their lives,” Coble said. “We know there’s a direct link between not having a law that allows law enforcement officers to confiscate weapons from those who are known to use violence against their partners, their spouses and their children. It leads directly to homicides.”

In 2015, Missouri was tied for 10th in the nation as the state with the highest rate of women murdered by men, according to a September 2017 report by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates against gun violence.

That year, 47 women were murdered by men in Missouri, according to the report. Of the 41 homicides where a weapon was known, 30 women were fatally shot. Of the 39 cases in which the relationship between the victim and offender was known, 37 women were the wife, ex-wife or girlfriend of their murderer.

Lawmakers’ bills would make Missouri’s law match current federal law. Sen. Scott Sifton, an Affton Democrat who is the only male member of the legislature sponsoring a similar version of the bill, said he thinks the state is better equipped to get guns out of the hands of abusers.

“I was raised by a mother who was uniquely sensitive to some of these issues by virtue of some of her childhood experiences,” Sifton said. “The federal government addressed this issue in the mid-1990s, but the reality is that the FBI does not enforce, lacks the resources to enforce, or at least has not been enforcing.”

Lichtenegger, a lifelong NRA member, tweaked her bill from last year’s version by removing a 24-hour window that allowed people with a court order to transfer a gun to someone who could legally possess it.

“That just didn’t make sense to me,” Lichtenegger said. “That’s like looking at you and saying, ‘I’m going to give you 24 hours to look over the answers to this test. And then you can go in and take the test.’ 

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, that window can be deadly. A 2008 study surveying 10 cities found that about a fifth of homicide victims with temporary protective orders were murdered within two days of obtaining the order, and about a third were murdered within the first month.

Lichtenegger said she added the 24-hour window to her bill last year at the request of the NRA. However, the group still opposed her bill.

It’s unclear whether the NRA opposes Lichtenegger’s efforts this year. Whitney O’Daniel, the NRA’s Missouri lobbyist, could not be reached for comment.

McCreery and Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat, have also sponsored bills that would give police the ability to seize firearms at the scene of a domestic violence incident. The proposed legislation would aid not only victims but also law enforcement, Coble said.

Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican and supporter of gun rights, said he thinks Missouri’s gun laws are strong and questioned the need to change them.

“They’re good. They’re well thought out. We’re not perfect and no state, no government, is perfect,” Brattin said. “But I would have to see where they’re saying these loopholes are, because you hear a lot of talk and hearsay of all this sort of stuff, but is it really there or is just a way to try to garner a movement to restrict gun laws?”

Lichtenegger said her personal experiences help her understand women and men affected by domestic violence and guns, and she hopes that other lawmakers will join her.

“I think that the members of my party are actually starting to realize where I’m coming from,” she said. “With guns comes responsibility, and I’m just looking for good ownership.”