Gun rights in Missouri were expanded this week by a victorious Republican supermajority in the Legislature. Will we have more senseless mayhem or a greater sense of personal safety?
The debate will roil on, probably without resolution. What’s certain is that the paragraphs of Senate Bill 656 are part of the Missouri Revised Statutes, mainly sprinkled through Chapter 571 covering “Weapons Offenses.”
The expanded right to concealed carry takes effect Jan. 1. Changes in rules for “stand your ground” are effective Oct. 14.
The only section that became law immediately with Wednesday’s override vote says that service personnel whose concealed-carry permits expire while they are on active duty can get renewals without penalty for two months after discharge.
The marquee section generally allows gun owners to pack them concealed without the need of passing the special training and paying permit fees the state has required since 2004. The issue has divided Missouri politics, largely along urban-rural lines, much longer than that.
After years of legislative debate, Missouri voters went to the polls in 1999 and narrowly defeated Proposition B to allow concealed carry, with urban and suburban voters opposed and rural voters heavily in favor.
The divide persisted as the Legislature voted in 2003 to allow concealed carry despite the referendum and then overrode Gov. Bob Holden’s veto.
So it went Wednesday, when the House and Senate voted to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 656, which the Legislature had passed earlier in the year. Republicans all voted for override. All Democrats but Rep. Ben Harris, D-Hillsboro, backed their governor. In the Legislature, almost all of the Democrats hail from urban areas.
Both sides spoke at length of the culture divide — rural legislators about the right to bear arms, urban representatives about the potential for replays of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City strongly urged legislators to uphold the governor’s veto.
The National Rifle Association was jubilant, calling the override “a great day for freedom in Missouri.” State Rep. Kimberly Gardner, D-St. Louis, who is the Democratic nominee for city circuit attorney on Nov. 8, warned that the new law “has put our state on a disastrous course.”
Here’s what the law does and doesn’t do, according to the NRA, summaries by the legislative library and interviews with legislators and law-enforcement officers:
• Come Jan. 1, lawful owners of firearms will be able to conceal and carry them anywhere in Missouri, subject to the limitations that already exist — not in the likes of courthouses, jails, polling places or businesses, such as grocery stores, that post “no guns” at their doors.
• Background checks for buying weapons still apply as required.
• Only holders of Missouri concealed-carry permits can carry concealed weapons outside of the state, and Illinois still requires visitors to have Illinois permits. The other seven states surrounding Missouri honor its permits. There also are some places in Missouri, such as some school districts, that give more rights to permit holders.
• Local governments, such as St. Louis, still can prohibit people from carrying weapons openly unless they have concealed-carry permits.
The oddity, said NRA lobbyist Whitney O’Daniel, of Carbondale, Ill., is that people will be able to carry concealed weapons in St. Louis and other places that limit open carry. A pistol in your pocket, yes, but not in an Old West holster on your hip.
Angie Brooks, manager of STL Sharpshooters range and gun shop in Affton, warned that many people who applaud the new law may not understand that local exception, which she called common in the St. Louis area. “Without a permit, you still could be in violation without knowing it,” Brooks said.
St. Louis City Counselor Michael Garvin said the city has an ordinance prohibiting open carry but doesn’t enforce it because state law has pre-empted most, if not all, local restrictions. Garvin said his staff is studying the provisions of the new law to, among other things, determine whether open carry can be restricted.
• County sheriffs still will issue state permits after applicants pass training courses, but they’ll have less power to refuse them for reasons of an applicant’s history with law enforcement — even if they don’t have disqualifying convictions. Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said he probably refuses a dozen requests a year from people in his county, where more than 6,000 residents have permits.
“I have no problem with the original law,” said Toelke, who is retiring Dec. 31 after 28 years as sheriff. “I could refuse a permit for somebody who has had frequent contact with the law, or who is a suicide threat. Now that person will be able to carry a concealed weapon, and that concerns me.”
• Applicants can seek lifetime permits for $500 if they don’t want to face the five-year renewal requirement. But lifetime permits aren’t valid outside the state.
Another key change is in the definition of “stand your ground,” which generally protects a person using deadly force to defend his or her home or vehicle. The new law no longer requires people to attempt to back away from trouble in public, as in a tavern parking lot, before using deadly force if there is fear of bodily harm.
Toelke said that part of the law “is going to have to be pinned down more” for deputies who are called to public disruptions.
Kevin Ahlbrand, legislative director for the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, raised similar concerns. His organization opposed the override. He noted that sponsors of the bill admitted to some of the flaws in debate, but promised to “fix it next year.”
“This is not some type of banking regulation, this is public safety and law enforcement safety,” Ahlbrand said. “To pass a bill that they know there are problems with is unconscionable.”
He is concerned about the status of the few local restrictions left, and fears that some rural legislators don’t understand urban challenges.
“Our biggest fear is criminals who have not been convicted of a felony but are engaged in criminal activity will be legally carrying guns, and we’re now going to have to assume everyone is armed,” Ahlbrand said. “When we show up to a scene and there are five guys with their guns out, what do we do?”
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said the new law “will leave (citizens) less safe, and make the job of law enforcement more difficult and put our officers in danger.” Dotson also said that eliminating the required training courses necessary for permits means there will be people carrying concealed weapons who don’t know how to use them.
“You just assume everybody knows how to use a gun, but how many people accidentally shoot themselves?” he said. “You have to show us you know how to drive a car, but don’t have to show us you know how to shoot a gun.”
State Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, a sponsor of the new law, said the worries by Dotson and others are much ado about nothing.
“Missourians have more freedom than they did yesterday,” Burlison said Thursday.
What Missourians will get, countered Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, a vocal opponent of the law, is more deaths by gunfire. “And we already have too many.”
Christine Byers and Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.