The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Since its adoption, scholars and lawyers have debated what the Second Amendment means, and how it applies. Until recently, there seemed to be a consensus that reasonable regulations on guns, the purchase of guns, and the use of guns were both constitutional and wise policy.
That consensus no longer exists in our state.
Last year, we argued against a proposed constitutional amendment that made Missouri law far more protective of guns than the federal Second Amendment requires. We spoke out against the new state amendment because there are too many guns on the streets. Guns are too easy to get, and the plentiful supply of legal guns means they are readily available to criminals. Hundreds of guns are stolen from law-abiding citizens each year: In 2014 alone, more than 470 guns were reported to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as stolen. The number of unreported stolen guns in Missouri is not known, because even the simple requirement that legal owners report stolen guns to local police departments is apparently too controversial to be a law.
We also argued that the proposed state constitutional amendment was ambiguous. We warned, loudly and in many venues, including the courts, that it could lead to unforeseen results, results that could endanger our city.
But despite the warning and even though the language was ambiguous, sponsors of the proposed amendment were not dissuaded. They asserted that the amendment could not be used to protect the “right” of a convicted criminal to carry a gun anywhere he pleased. One of the amendment’s proponents, a state senator, even said explicitly that the intent of the amendment was to leave in place the laws prohibiting convicted criminals from carrying guns.
Reassured by this, voters of Missouri adopted the new amendment. Now, we are starting to see the troubling results of that decision.
Last week, a state judge in St. Louis declared that the law banning criminals from carrying guns was unconstitutional, based on the amendment. He ruled that a convicted felon in undisputed possession of a firearm cannot be charged.
The judge’s decision will be appealed, though the law will still be enforced, and the city will follow the case closely through the court system. Also pending in the Missouri Supreme Court is a challenge brought by law enforcement officials and an advocacy group of parents to declare the amendment itself invalid. The outcome of neither case is certain.
The Missouri Legislature, therefore, should not wait.
Many voters took legislators at their word that Amendment 5 would not make it more dangerous for police officers and more difficult for prosecutors to their jobs. It has. Legislators should act immediately to restate the law barring felons from possessing firearms.
In the meantime, we should be resolved as a region to take a hard look ourselves at gun laws. We cannot stand by and allow careless state policy to trump reasonable regulations aimed at keeping our families safe. We must begin to push the limits at the local level, looking at all of our legal options, whether that is a new ordinance, new policing strategies, or a new gun docket in the court system to track those gun criminals that are prosecuted. And we must press our legislative delegation to either fix the law, or to revisit the constitutional amendment in 2016, and let the voters decide whether they want to keep this amendment on the books now that we know how bad its results are.
Francis Slay is mayor of St. Louis. Sam Dotson is the city’s police chief.