Editorials

As the body count continues to rise, why can’t Kansas City write its own gun laws?

Fourteen-year old Damian Norfleet’s life ended far too soon when a barrage of bullets fired through a window struck him in the head and chest.

The freshman-to-be at Grandview High School was shot to death last month while he swept a floor inside his family’s home. There is a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in Damian’s murder. He was the fourth child 16 or younger to die in Kansas City this year as a result of gun violence.

The deadly toll is not limited to Kansas City. During one stretch in June, gunfire killed four children in five days in St. Louis.

Criminologists, law enforcement officials and community advocates have not been able to pinpoint the exact causes of the escalating violence. And solutions to stem the unending gun deaths in urban area such as Kansas City and St. Louis have been lacking.

It’s clear, though, that what Missouri is doing isn’t working. And it’s become increasingly evident that a one size-fits-all approach to state gun laws has been an abject failure.

Missouri is one of 43 states that prohibit local governments from regulating firearms and ammunition. But Congressman William Lacy Clay, a Democrat from St. Louis, is trying to change that.

Last week, Clay introduced a bill that would allow cities to enact their own gun laws. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, is one of 14 co-sponsors of the bill.

The Local Public Health and Safety Protection Act is a commonsense approach to gun regulation. It would provide grants to states to help with the implementation of new laws at the local level. Any state that receives federal public safety funding would have to comply.

The measure is just one piece of the puzzle as cities wrestle with how to reduce gun violence, and it faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate. But it’s a much-needed step that would allow urban areas facing unique challenges in combating gun crimes to write laws that make sense for individual cities.

“I am tired of the violence,” Clay said at a recent press conference.

Missouri had the seventh-highest gun death rate in the nation from 2011 to 2015, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, averaging 339 gun-related homicides a year, 562 gun-related suicides and 996 non-fatal gun assaults per year. The violence cost the state $1.9 billion annually, with taxpayers footing much of the bill.

Research shows a direct correlation between gun deaths and gun control. In states with fewer regulations, the number of gun deaths is higher. And Missouri has some of the most lenient laws in the nation. Anyone 19 and older can legally carry a concealed weapon without a permit, training or even a background check.

The same conservatives who support gun rights at any cost also purport to back local control. So, why won’t they let local leaders write gun laws that are responsive to local challenges?

Of course, opponents of any gun control will argue that Clay’s legislation won’t cure all that ails cities.

“The critique you hear is always dramatic and stark: ‘That won’t fix it either.’” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “There is no one fix, no magic pill to make violence go away. But this is a step in the right direction.”

In theory, it makes sense for states to regulate guns, says Ken Novak, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. However, urban areas such as Kansas City and St. Louis have different experiences with gun violence than much of the rest of the state.

Columbia and Springfield face challenges as well.

“It would seem localities should have some influence and say on gun-related laws that may be more restrictive than what is permitted at the state level,” Novak said.

Instead, officials in Kansas City and St. Louis, two of the nation’s most dangerous cities, are powerless to act.

“Until city leaders are allowed to institute gun safety measures based on circumstances in their cities, we’ll continue to fight the plague of gun violence with one hand tied behind our backs, and more lives will be lost,” said outgoing Kansas City Mayor Sly James.

Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas said, “While I understand and support Congressman Clay’s effort to give cities commonsense control, I know that on violent crime, we have work to do at home to make our community safer long before we look to Washington, D.C. or Jefferson City to save the day.”

Lucas is right about the need for grassroots efforts to reduce gun violence. But cities should be given the discretion they need to address local conditions, said Richard Rosenfeld, Professor Emeritus in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“As long as the laws they pass are constitutional, there is nothing in the Second Amendment or the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation that would prohibit such reasonable discretion,” Rosenfeld said.

If the state of Missouri won’t give cities the ability to reasonably regulate firearms and ammunition, the body count will only continue to grow.

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