Vote ‘no’ on gun and data questions in Missouri

Police investigations could be hampered if two Missouri ballot questions pass on Aug. 5.
Police investigations could be hampered if two Missouri ballot questions pass on Aug. 5. The Kansas City Star

At first glance two questions on Missouri’s August 5 ballot appear harmless enough.

One asks voters to affirm that “the right to keep and bear arms is an unalienable right.” Another seeks to protect Missourians’ electronic communications and data from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Both questions are proposed amendments to the state constitution. Although they appear innocuous, they are freighted with potential harmful consequences and could impede the work of law enforcement agencies.

Even the lawmakers who voted to place the questions on the ballot disagree on what they actually say or do. About the only thing that’s certain is that the questions are almost certain to drag the state into costly future court battles.

The Star recommends “no” votes on Constitutional Amendments 5 and 9.

Amendment 5

The right of Missourians to keep and bear arms is amply granted in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in state law. But legislators, always eager to burnish their pro-gun credentials, felt the need to put it in the state constitution.

That would be a grievous mistake. Amendment 5 sets few barriers on exactly who has earned the “unalienable” right to possess firearms and ammunition. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says that could include convicted gang members, drug dealers and persons accused of domestic violence.

“No one can ensure the citizens of Missouri that these changes to our constitution will not create these unintended consequences,” Peters Baker wrote to lawmakers this year.

Along with Jennifer Joyce, the St. Louis Circuit attorney, Peters Bakers has filed a court motion contesting the language that will appear on the ballot. The two prosecutors contend the ballots won’t sufficiently inform voters that the proposed amendment would severely limit the legislature’s authority to regulate firearm use only for “convicted violent felons” or those declared by a court to be dangerously mentally ill.

The state auditor does see fit to warn voters that “the proposal’s passage will likely lead to increased litigation and criminal justice related cost,” which “could be significant.”

Clearly, this is no simple nod to the gun-rights crowd. Amendment 5 has the potential to greatly expand firearm use and restrict law enforcement’s ability to protect the public. It is a threat to public safety and the state’s treasury.

No one is contesting the right of law-abiding Missourians to own firearms. The ballot question likely extends gun rights to criminals who shouldn’t have them. Voters must reject this dangerous proposal.

Amendment 9

There’s no question the nation needs to better protect the communications that Americans undertake on their computers and cell phones. But a vaguely worded amendment in the Missouri constitution isn’t the best way to begin.

Amendment 9 says that “people shall be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures as they are now likewise secure in their persons, homes, papers and effects.”

Exactly what that means would probably be the subject of litigation, but it likely would require state and local police to obtain a search warrant before looking at someone’s cell phone or computer.

On principle, that sounds like a good idea. But a constitutional amendment leaves little room for nuances. What if a police officer spots a message as it is appearing on a cell phone screen, for example? Should police be able to look at a person’s cell phone to determine whether texting while driving was a factor in an accident? How would federal agents be affected when they work in Missouri?

The sponsors of the proposed amendment, Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph and Rep. Paul Curtman of Pacific, both Republicans, want to see Missouri set a precedent for the nation by granting electronic data the same privacy protections as the possessions and papers inside a person’s home. The U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with two cases dealing with electronic privacy now, and will likely do so for years to come.

The intent of Amendment 9 is good. But there’s been too little discussion about the potential consequences. The subject needs to be more thoroughly explored by the courts and in legislative debate before it is enshrined in the Missouri constitution.