For three years in a row, Missouri has produced a dubious achievement that experts predict will soon be the national norm: Beginning in 2011, gun deaths in Missouri — including suicides — outpaced deaths in motor vehicle accidents, long the leading nonmedical cause of death in every state.
In 2013, the most recent year for which such statistics are available, the Centers for Disease Control reports that firearms were responsible for 880 deaths in Missouri. That year 779 people across the state died in motor vehicle accidents.
Consider nine deaths in two days last week.
First, state Auditor Tom Schweich ended his life with a single gunshot wound to the head, an apparent suicide, according to Clayton police. The next day, Joseph Henry Aldridge went on a violent shooting spree in Texas County, killing seven, injuring several others, and finally turning his gun on himself.
All of this gun violence makes a ruling last week by St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker that much more important.
In a case brought by Raymond Robinson, a convicted felon facing a gun possession charge, Judge Dierker ruled that because of the passage of Amendment 5 last November, Missouri law banning felons from owning guns is now unconstitutional.
This is the result of a poorly worded amendment and was feared by prosecutors, including Jennifer Joyce of St. Louis and Jean Peters Baker of Kansas City. It was the prediction of St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and Mayor Francis Slay. You can read their reaction to the ruling on the opposite page.
And, yes, this editorial page predicted it, too. It took no particular bolt of insight to figure out this would happen.
Amendment 5 was pushed by state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature (as well as a few Democrats afraid of the National Rifle Association). Amendment 5 was promoted not because Missouri had any shortage of guns nor weak gun-ownership laws. It’s on the books because Mr. Schaefer was seeking a political victory. He is running for attorney general, and until he decided to start acting like a pandering fool, he had a reputation as a smart, reasonable moderate who could someday earn election to a statewide office.
Fearing he couldn’t win a rough-and-tumble primary against more extreme candidates, Mr. Schaefer sought to burnish his right-wing bonafides. Never mind that Missouri’s Constitution long has had gun ownership protections at least as strong as the actual Second Amendment. Mr. Schaefer and his pals sought to make it stronger.
Instead, they made us less safe, putting reasonable restrictions in jeopardy, including the one now invalidated by Judge Dierker. His thoughtful opinion sought every possible way around the “unalienable” right to gun possession now guaranteed in the state constitution and the requirement that “strict scrutiny” be applied to the law.
That second part means that the words have to be interpreted exactly how they’re written. Mr. Schaefer’s lame excuse that Amendment 5 doesn’t mean what it says — as Judge Dierker writes — is meaningless.
So here’s the state of gun play in Missouri: In a state in which there are more gun deaths than traffic deaths, in which toddlers are grabbing mommy and daddy’s guns and firing away, in which cities are being told by a Legislature there is nothing they can do about gun violence, now convicted felons can own guns and there is nothing the police can do about it.
That’s a word we find ourselves using all too often when it comes to the Missouri Legislature, but it fits. It also fits Attorney General Chris Koster, who was so afraid of the gun lobby that he offered his voice of support for an amendment that is now the scourge of law enforcement officers across the state. It’s a word that applies to every Republican and Democrat who voted for the law, ignoring clear warnings from distinguished prosecutors who predicted how the law would be interpreted.
The comparison between guns and motor vehicles is apt. Long ago, lawmakers accepted the premise that when it comes to motor vehicles, and the privacy to do what one wishes with one’s own car or truck, other people have rights, too. Cars can be dangerous.
Thus, over the years, and especially in the past three decades, lawmakers have passed tougher speed limit laws, seat belt laws, and anti-drunk-driving laws. That is why motor vehicle deaths are dropping to historically low levels. Lawmakers took seriously the responsibility of protecting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of those who could be harmed by an individual use of a piece of machinery as a dangerous weapon.
Not so when it comes to guns. There is no such discussion about the necessary balancing act between one’s constitutional rights and another’s — not when it comes with the risk of antagonizing the gun lobby.
Instead of strengthening gun licensing provisions, Missouri lawmakers are weakening them. Instead of protecting innocent citizens from felons, Missouri lawmakers (and voters) are making it more likely those felons will be armed.
The best hope for Missourians at this point is that the Missouri Supreme Court will retroactively overturn Amendment 5 as a result of the lawsuit brought by Mr. Dotson and Rebecca Morgan, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The Legislature could send another amendment to voters, one substituting the words “except for convicted felons” after “unalienable.” We wouldn’t count on that.
If the court doesn’t undo the damage done to the constitution by a pandering and sloppy Legislature, then get ready for more days like last Thursday and Friday.
Gun deaths will continue to rise in Missouri. More innocent lives will be lost.
This is the shameful, bloody legacy of Amendment 5.