County leaders critical of state gun law

By Jeff Fox
The Examiner

Jackson County officials are signing onto a lawsuit challenging a new state law seeking to undermine federal gun laws, and several of them have sharp criticism for the new policy. 

They described the law as not only unneeded and unconstitutional but harmful to police doing their work and harmful to the victims of gun violence. 

“The thing that I want to stress,” said county Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, “is at the end of the day the issues around the law that was passed in Missouri have to do with nullification of federal laws in the state – which I’m going to remind people the Civil War was fought over this and the Missouri Legislature completely overstepped their bounds.” 

The Missouri General Assembly passed the Second Amendment Protection Act in May largely along party lines, and Gov. Mike Parson signed it last month. It forbids law-enforcement officers in Missouri from enforcing federal gun laws, it carries a fine against police agencies of $50,000 per officer taking part in such enforcement, and it bans police who enforce those laws from working in law enforcement. 

In response, the U.S. Justice Department has told Parson the state cannot ignore federal law and that the new law threatens relationships between federal and local law-enforcement agencies. St. Louis and St. Louis County have sued to block the law. Jackson County is asking to join that suit. 

“We are states under the federal government. This is Basic Civics 101,” Williams said. 

Proponents of the law say they want to head off new gun laws from Washington and that since Missouri guns laws mostly mirror those at the federal level the effects on law enforcement should be minimal. Nonetheless, the police chief in the state’s seventh-largest city, O’Fallon, resigned in protest, saying the law is poorly worded and will lead to unintended consequences. Also, the Associated Press reported that the Missouri State Highway Patrol has suspended participation in a task force with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. had asked the County Legislature to support the lawsuit. He said the law is clearly unconstitutional and only makes things worse in cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis, cities with some of the highest homicide rates in the country.  

“I think that sometimes you have to stand up for what you think is right,” White said Monday when legislators debated the issue. “And I know from the state level up, everything is political, but I think on a local level we have to look at what is right for the residents ...” 

Split vote by legislators

The County Legislature vote was 5-3. Those in favor were Williams; Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs; Tony Miller, D-Lee's Summit, Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, and Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City. Those opposed were Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs; Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee's Summit; and Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City. Charlie Franklin, D-Independence, was absent. 

Lauer and Galvin expressed concerns about the possible cost to the county and said they needed to know more about the lawsuit itself. White’s office said St. Louis and St. Louis County have not asked other parties to share in the legal costs. 

“I’m just not sure that we’re ready to do this yet,” Lauer said. 

Miller, a former county prosecutor, said the relationship between local and federal law enforcement is crucial, and he mentioned reports of local agencies already pulling out of drug task forces.  

“They do their best work when they work with the local law-enforcement people who know the neighborhood,” Miller said. “They know who the players are. They know what’s going on at the street level. And you can’t do long-term undercover investigations and deal with some of the crime if you threaten to imprison and fine and strip local police of their ability to do their job. It seems like we’re taking two steps back.” 

He added, “If you’re going to threaten these hard-working people with their badge … I just think it’s the wrong thing to do.” 

“It’s fascinating to me,” Williams said, “that people who profess to support law enforcement passed this law.” 

Other legislators said state elected officials know full well that the law won’t stand up in court but are making a political point. 

“This state knows better,” Anderson said. “It knows that this is unconstitutional. It knows it is wrong.” 

Finley, an attorney of 40 years, said the law is “so out of the realm of legality.” 

'Making people less safe'

Williams said it’s particularly troubling that the Missouri General Assembly has banned local governments from taking significant action to stop gun violence and now is taking this step at the state level.  

“The state Legislature refuses to pass anything to protect victims of ongoing violence in this state,” she said. “And Missouri is in the top three states in the nation for women being killed by abusers with firearms.” 

Williams said the law seems to be rooted in unfounded concerns about guns being confiscated. 

“Yet we’re making people less safe by passing this law,” she said. 

Williams said county officials of necessity have a relationship Gov. Parson and other state officials. 

“We are all tasked to work together,” she said. “But the cynic in me wonders – since they know damn well that this thing is unconstitutional – if this entire exercise is nothing but a political exercise that has deadly consequences, that they know that it’s going to be overturned, that there is an election year coming up, and that they very often – in this new divided universe that we live in – that they will weaponize literally anything, and so that cynicism is what puts us where we are. … It’s ridiculous that we’re put in this position.” 

State legislators passed the law on nearly straight party-line votes, including Eastern Jackson County legislators. Republican Reps. Bill Kidd of Independence, Dan Stacy of Blue Springs, Jeff Coleman of Grain Valley, Jon Peterson of Lee’s Summit and Sen. Mike Cierpiot of Lee’s Summit voted yes. Democratic Reps. Robert Sauls of Independence, Jerome Barnes of Raytown, Yolanda Young of Kansas City (whose district includes much of western Independence), Ingrid Burnett of Kansas City (whose district includes much of northwest Independence) and Sen. John Rizzo of Independence voted no. Rep. Rory Rowland, D-Independence, was absent.