Consider the case of Phoenix M. Vankirk.
Vankirk, 19, stands accused of taking a deer out of season. He lives near the Elmwood Cemetery on the east side of Kansas City. One evening last month, he was outside grilling and saw a deer in the cemetery. He didn’t know the animal was essentially tame or that neighbors considered it a pet. He grabbed his .45-caliber handgun, jumped the fence, hid behind a tree and, when the animal got close enough, shot it. His plan fell apart when he realized the cemetery gates were locked and he had no means to get the carcass out. He told authorities he was trying to feed his family and he’s extremely sorry. He faces a $275 fine.
That’s a small, sad story of poor decisions. Here’s a bigger one.
Under a bill the Missouri General Assembly passed this year, publishing the account above would be illegal – not because of the deer’s sad end or Vankirk’s illegal and dumb decisions but because Vankirk would be identified as a gun owner.
Absurd, right? Absolutely. How could such a blatantly unconstitutional law get passed? Ask the 142 Missouri legislators – including the majority from Eastern Jackson County – who voted for it.
Gov. Jay Nixon wisely vetoed the bill, but it appears likely that legislators will override that veto next week. It’s pure politics. Even legislators on the record as knowing full well that the bill is flatly unconstitutional and will be thrown out in court will vote for it again for fear of grief at election time. It’s pandering, and it’s cowardly.
More broadly, this is also the law that would assert that federal gun laws are null and void in Missouri and that federal agents could be arrested for doing their jobs. It’s been established for two centuries that states cannot decide which federal laws apply and which don’t. The last major case on this was more than half a century ago ago, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously. It really is that simple.
Still, passage of this bill will end in more than a waste of the courts’ time and the taxpayers’ money. It could also do real damage. It forbids any Missouri law enforcement officer from cooperating with federal authorities on enforcing gun laws. Hold on a minute, says Attorney General Chris Koster. What if a state trooper encounters a felon who has sold guns to illegal immigrants? Missouri has no law on that, but there is a federal law. This bill would make it illegal to even turn that case over to the feds. “Numerous other real world situations can be easily postulated,” Koster said in a letter this week to legislative leaders.
This puts police in legal danger, too. They could be sued by those they arrest under federal gun laws. “When a police officer in the City of St. Louis recovers a fully automatic machine gun from a drug dealer’s car,” Koster asks, “should the matter no longer be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office because the federal Gun Control Act of 1934 outlawed the weapon?” He added that “subjecting every police officer, police department, and prosecutor to a civil lawsuit for doing their jobs is a bewildering and discouraging decision.”
Gun rights are well establshed – appropriately so – at the federal and state levels. Still, pandering politicians are always looking for symbolic acts to remind people where they stand and, let’s not forget, to raise money. But a bad law is a bad law. This veto should stand.