JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a case challenging a new gun law opponents say bars police from helping enforce certain federal firearms laws.
The Second Amendment Preservation Act, which went into effect in August, declares “invalid” many federal gun regulations that don’t have an equivalent in Missouri law, including statutes covering weapons registration and tracking, and possession of firearms by some domestic violence offenders.
Local departments are barred from enforcing them, or risk being sued for $50,000 by private citizens who believe their Second Amendment rights have been violated.
Missouri police are also prohibited from giving “material aid and support” to federal agents and prosecutors in enforcing those “invalid” laws on “law-abiding citizens” — defined as those who Missouri law permits to have a gun.
SAPA, which was sponsored by Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, and Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, has emerged as a major factor in the widening split between law enforcement and backers of increasingly liberal gun laws in Missouri.
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Just last month, nearly 60 Missouri police chiefs threw their support behind a lawsuit by the city of Arnold that contends the law hampers criminal investigations.
The case before the high court on Monday involves a lawsuit brought by St. Louis and the state’s two most populous counties.
In written arguments to the high court appealing a Cole County circuit court ruling, attorneys for St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County argue SAPA has caused disruptions in federal-state law enforcement cooperation in Missouri.
“Violent crime involving the use of firearms is an endemic problem in Missouri, and the problem is particularly acute in St. Louis and Kansas City,” the attorneys wrote. “The participation of plaintiffs’ law enforcement officers in federal task forces is important in suppressing violent crime.”
The attorneys for the city and the two counties also say the law could put them at risk of the $50,000 penalty if they hire certain former federal agents or police officers.
“This section also seeks to limit plaintiffs’ ability to hire as county or city officers former officers from other jurisdictions within or outside Missouri who participated in any law enforcement activity with federal authorities that incidentally or intentionally involved enforcing federal gun laws, and it imposes penalties if plaintiffs hire or retain such individuals,” the brief notes. This is exactly the sort of micromanagement of constitutional charter cities and counties that the Constitution forbids.”
In supporting the law, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, dismisses that interpretation of the law.
“It just says that people who have knowingly violated fundamental civil rights should not be hired by political subdivisions,” Schmitt wrote in the state’s brief. “All SAPA penalizes is knowingly hiring a class of people who have knowingly violated Missourians’ fundamental rights.”
House Bill 85 was approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly as a preemptive strike against future gun control measures from Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
In response, the law prompted several Missouri agencies to halt common practices that involve working with the federal government. Some police have complained the law’s open-ended wording leaves them vulnerable to lawsuits for a wide variety of actions that may only tangentially involve federal personnel, or firearms.
Police departments statewide have withdrawn officers from partnerships with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Some departments have cut off the bureau from ballistics information and other evidence in shootings, federal officials say.
Police departments have raised concerns about whether they can run reports of a stolen gun or other weapons-related crimes through the National Crime Information Center, a U.S. Department of Justice database. Some departments argue entering information about any gun-related crimes could be construed as helping the federal government “track” weapons.
Justice Department opposition
In a brief supporting the city and counties, Justice Department lawyers said the law “poses a clear and substantial threat to public safety.”
“Since taking effect, the law has already seriously impaired the federal government’s ability to combat violent crime in Missouri. Owing directly to H.B. 85, dozens of state and local agencies (including the Missouri State Highway Patrol) felt compelled to withdraw from established partnerships with federal law enforcement; many state and local officials are no longer sharing information with their federal counterparts or contributing to federally administered databases; and the state crime lab is no longer processing evidence in aid of investigation of federal firearms offenses,” the department wrote.
The Justice Department said the law has “caused considerable harm to longstanding information-sharing relationships.”
“In some localities, federal agents are now required to issue subpoenas for information that is ordinarily available upon informal request. These disruptions to the flow of vital information between previously cooperative agencies frustrates the work of federal, state, and local law enforcement alike,” the department wrote.
Gun rights groups also have weighed in on the case. Kansas City attorney Edward Greim, writing on behalf of the Missouri Firearms Coalition and similar groups in other states, said the law was crafted because “gun rights are in a precarious situation in America.”
“Numerous federal gun restrictions are akin to banning parades because they might turn into riots,” Greim wrote.
Loosening gun laws
The push to loosen gun laws has been a continuing theme in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
In 2016, lawmakers voted to override then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill legalizing concealed carry without a permit. That change removed required criminal background checks and gun safety training classes for people wanting to be in public with a firearm.
And the push to pass pro-gun legislation is continuing in the current session.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee debated Burlison’s latest bill, which would establish a presumption that individuals who use force against another person reasonably did so in order to defend themselves.
Prosecutors, law-enforcement representatives and civil rights and religious leaders slammed the proposal, arguing it would further stress the state’s already strained court system.
Proponents said it provided a necessary edit to the state’s “castle doctrine” law to guard against overzealous prosecutions.
Missouri law currently requires an individual to prove they reasonably believed physical or deadly force was needed for self-defense, according to a bill summary.
St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Lohmar, a Republican, said Senate Bill 666 would create “pretrial immunity hearings” during which a defendant would be able to make a self-defense claim. The state would then have to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” the defendant isn’t immune from prosecution.
Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver, a Republican representing the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told a Senate committee hearing testimony on S.B. 666, “I refer to it as the ‘Make Murder Legal Act.’”
Originally posted at 7 a.m. Friday, Feb. 4