The Missouri Influencer Series

On a polarizing issue like gun control, can lawmakers find common ground?

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Missouri Influencer Series

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Outgoing Missouri Rep. Donna Lichtenegger is a lifelong National Rifle Association member and Second Amendment supporter.

But she said Missouri may have gone too far when lawmakers did away with a requirement that people get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“After they did constitutional carry — the minute I walked out of the room, I realized what I had done,” said Lichtenegger, R-Jackson. “That’s the worst vote I ever took.”

Lichtenegger can’t run for the Missouri House again because of the state’s term limits, and she said she won’t run for the Senate. But she hopes someone will continue the fight to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, a problem she says arose partially out of constitutional carry.

“Right now, I feel like every day that goes by that something doesn’t happen, we’re very fortunate,” said Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, who sponsored a similar bill.

Asked about gun issues, Star readers said the most important question was what additional restrictions should be placed on gun purchases. The Missouri Influencers, the Star’s panel of dozens of leaders from across Missouri, set out to answer the question. Of the 40 Influencers who responded to a survey, most supported some additional restrictions.

“It is not unreasonable to expect that anyone being allowed to conceal and carry a weapon be trained on how to use it safely and that that individual have no prior criminal convictions or history of domestic abuse,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

U.S. residents are 25 times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than people living in other developed countries. For many, the bottom-line question is how to keep people safe while protecting Second Amendment rights.

The answer isn’t simple.

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“Its time to take off our partisan colored glasses and realize President Obama wasn’t going to take away anyone’s guns, nor is President Trump going to allow all gun laws to expire — (nor) will he urge Congress to repeal all of them,” said Jason Grill, a media consultant. “Extreme hyperbole on both sides of the aisle and from special interest groups is the reason why common sense legislation doesn’t exist in America.”

Universal background checks were popular among the Influencers. As they rated various gun-control policies, about 92 percent of the Influencers either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with universal background checks.

Nearly 90 percent wanted to make it harder for domestic abusers to get guns, and about 80 percent agreed with banning assault-style rifles such as AR-15s. Banning bump stocks and high capacity magazines had strong support, but raising the minimum age to buy a rifle or shotgun was less popular.

About 15 percent of the Influencers felt strongly that lawmakers don’t need to make any changes to laws around gun sales.

“There is no balance to strike,” said James Harris, a GOP political strategist. “The U.S. Constitution is clear. The right to bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Jennifer Lowry, chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, disagreed.

“The right to bear arms does not imply that all persons should be allowed to purchase and yield this weapon,” Lowry said.

From now until election day, the Star will be running its Missouri Influencer Series and asking readers and the panel of influencers to weigh in. The project creates a conversation between readers and influential Missourians about the biggest policy issues confronting the state. Readers can ask questions and vote on topics they want the Influencers to address.

What can be done?

How do you solve a uniquely American problem like gun violence?

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, in 2016 the U.S. had a firearm-violence death rate of 3.85 per 100,000 population. Germany had a rate of 0.12 per 100,000, and the United Kingdom 0.07. Canada’s higher rate of 0.48 was still only one-eighth of the U.S. rate.

Bolivia, Haiti and Iraq all have gun death rates similar to the United States’.

Examining 2010 mortality data from the World Health Organization, two researchers from the University of Nevada-Reno and Harvard found the U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than that of other high-income countries. That’s driven by a gun homicide rate that’s 25 times higher.

Gun suicides are eight times higher in the U.S., even though overall suicide rates are in line with other developed countries’.

Whenever another mass shooting restarts the gun control conversation, the question arises — how do you keep people who want to inflict harm from doing so?

Gun control advocates argue for reforms to the law to make it harder for people to get guns. Others argue it’s mental health that causes mass shooters to act, and people need guns to protect themselves.

“I don’t rely on law enforcement in order to protect me,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa. “I don’t have a police officer standing with me every day, and in parts of my district, it’s 30 minutes before we’ll see a member of law enforcement arrive after calling 911.”

Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, grew up in Missouri’s Bootheel and was raised around guns, but he said he thought it was fascinating that some people feel safer walking through the Country Club Plaza with a gun on their hip.

“I feel less safe,” Razer said.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research studied Missouri’s firearm homicide rates before and after the state’s 2007 repeal of a law that required people to get a license before even purchasing a handgun. Controlling for other factors — including poverty, the overall violent crime rate, unemployment, police spending and incarceration — the study found a 23 percent increase in firearm-related homicides after the law’s repeal.

“We find exactly the policy that Missouri repealed is that policy that’s most consistently connected to reductions in gun homicide rates,” said Daniel Webster, director of the center.

He added there’s some evidence the policy lowered the risk of law enforcement officers being shot in the line of duty.

Universal background checks, a policy frequently proposed by gun reform groups, could help, Webster said. But they’re more effective when paired with a licensing requirement.

Lars Dalseide, public affairs media liaison for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, argued that current background check laws aren’t being enforced “and proponents are calling for expanding background checks to cover private firearms transactions.”

Dalseide said in a statement that the “ultimate goal of the gun control advocates pushing these misguided, ineffective schemes” is creating a gun registration.

Influencer Ryan Silvey, Missouri Public Service commissioner and former state senator, suggested gun courts that would exclusively address gun crimes.

“By having a specific docket to address only gun crimes, as we have done for drug courts, veterans courts, etc., we could ensure those cases are handled swiftly and not caught behind a backlog of less serious cases,” Silvey said.

Leland Shurin, an attorney and chairman of Kansas City Police Board, said cities should be allowed to require residents to report stolen guns to the police.

“Many stolen guns are used in homicides and drive by shootings and other crimes,” Shurin said. “But cities cannot legislate to require a person to report their weapon being stolen. Why it is a Second Amendment right to not be required to report that a gun has been stolen is typical NRA extremism.”

The NRA did not make any of its leaders available for an interview, but it noted that most guns used in crimes have been stolen.

How can lawmakers come together?

“Sometimes you look back and you really think about things when you’re not around all the rhetoric and everything and you can see that this is a mistake and it’s something that needs to be fixed,” Lichtenegger said regarding her bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

But it’s difficult to pass gun legislation. She thinks many of her colleagues agree with her but fear losing their re-election.

Missouri Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, said guns are not to blame for gun violence. He said family issues, economic factors, a lack of training and judges who are too lax on criminals have more to do with gun violence.

“Does a teacher ever blame a pencil for a student failing? No, but they sure try to blame guns for things where it’s actually the person,” said Munzlinger, who like Silvey is a supporter of gun courts.

With such a polarizing issue, compromise can prove evasive.

“I don’t know that the issue, as politicized as it has become, allows for any such balance to be struck,” said Influencer Patrick Tuohey, director of municipal policy for the libertarian Show-Me Institute.

Jane Dueker, a lawyer, radio host and former political adviser, said she was concerned the “grip of the NRA in this state is so strong” that lawmakers wouldn’t pass anything that could be a “perceived restriction on the unfettered right to easily secure any machine resembling a gun.”

“Our elected leaders have conditioned the electorate that they do not have to accept any restriction in the right to secure and carry any form of gun,” Dueker said. “That could take years to unravel.”

Influencer Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group, said it’s better to “err on the side of more constitutional freedoms for responsible gun owners.”

Previous survey: Education

Next survey: Health care

We want to hear from you

As costs continue to rise, there’s little agreement on the best way to ensure that health care is available and affordable for Missouri residents. Calls for “Medicare for all” have surfaced in the last few years, and efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act continue. And then there’s medical marijuana. What are your questions about health care policies in Missouri? Tell us at KansasCity.com/Influencers

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