On the Trail: Prosecutors aren't holding their fire against 'gun rights' amendment
When Amendment 5 was put before voters last August, 602,863 Missourians cast their ballots in favor of a measure aimed at bolstering the Show Me State’s gun rights.
It’s safe to say St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce was not among those voters.
“Amendment 5 is a disaster,” said Joyce during a recent episode of the Politically Speaking podcast. “I mean, that was just an inexplicably bad thing that happened in the state.”
Months after Amendment 5 passed with nearly 61 percent of the vote, two of the state’s top prosecutors – Joyce and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker – are pulling no punches. They contend that the amendment – which, among other things states that gun rights were “unalienable” and laws restricting them should be subject to “strict scrutiny” – is making it harder to combat gun violence in the state’s urban areas.
At particular issue is language that could strike down laws prohibiting felons to possess firearms. The Missouri Supreme Court is mulling over State of Missouri v. Merritt, where a convicted drug dealer argues that the Amendment should allow him to possess a firearm.
In an op-ed in the St. Louis American, Peters Baker said “law-abiding Missourians got no benefit” from the Amendment, “because we were already guaranteed our right to bear arms.” She went onto write that language in the amendment makes it potentially “legal for some of the most dangerous individuals, including convicted drug dealers and gang members, to legally carry firearms.”
Joyce echoed Peters Baker’s argument, adding the amendment “clearly does nothing to preserve people’s Second Amendment rights.”
“It is common sense that if you have someone who is a convicted felon, somebody who has robbed somebody in the past, somebody who has molested a child in the past, somebody who’s done domestic violence stalking or a big drug dealer – you don’t want that person carrying a gun,” Joyce said. “That person has demonstrated that they’re willing to break the law. They’re willing to commit crimes. And it makes no sense to let them carry a gun. And our hands are tied in some respects now because of this.”
Many Amendment 5 adversaries -- including Peters Baker -- heaped criticism on Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican and attorney general contender who handled the amendment when it passed through the General Assembly.
Schaefer vigorously rejects the idea that the amendment allows felons to carry guns, including in an amicus brief in the Missouri v. Merritt case. Among other things, he wrote that the amendment “sought to ensure that law-abiding citizens would continue to enjoy the fundamental right to defend themselves and their families against those who would trample on their rights and livelihoods.
“Mr. Merritt is not among those persons whom [Amendment 5] and the Second Amendment seek to protect, for the same reason that he was not among the voters who overwhelming passed the ballot measure in August: he is a felon,” Schaefer wrote in his amicus brief. “As such, he is not able to avail himself of certain rights and privileges, including those granted to law-abiding citizens contained within the Second Amendment and [the Missouri Constitution].”
While Democrats are pouncing on Schaefer, he’s getting a defense from an unlikely source – Attorney General Chris Koster.
Koster’s office defended Amendment 5’s ballot language – which has been another source of consternation. But Koster, a Republican-turned-Democrat, took things a step further by explicitly endorsing the measure before it went to voters:
After successfully defending Amendment 5 in court, looking forward to voting for it next Tuesday.— Chris Koster (@Koster4Missouri) July 30, 2014
At a press conference last week in Brentwood, Koster said he supported Amendment 5 because the “people of the state of Missouri are very strongly supportive of Second Amendment.
“It is a cultural and historic aspect of the people of our state,” said Koster, who is poised to be the Democratic nominee for governor next year. “And, you know, coming up in the political world, while I was born and raised here in St. Louis, I came up and learned politics in rural Missouri representing people and families there and adopted a lot of those values myself.”
(Koster wasn’t the only Democrat to support Amendment 5. It passed with 122 votes in the House – a tally that included a number of socially conservative Democrats.)
He went onto say the Missouri Supreme Court “more likely than not” will “give the ruling that Sen. Schaefer, myself and others believed would be the answer at the time Amendment 5 passed.
“I actually think, given the court’s makeup and looking at other rulings on this issue, that it is more likely than not that they will say the existing laws related to felons and possession that predate the adoption of the amendment will stand,” Koster said. “But those seven votes are the ones that will decide it ultimately.”
When Joyce heard Koster’s comments about supporting Amendment 5, she pulled no punches.
“I am Chris Koster fan. Make no mistake. But that’s ridiculous,” said Joyce, responding specifically to his rationale for supporting Amendment 5. “It clearly does nothing to preserve people’s Second Amendment rights. People’s Second Amendment rights in the state of Missouri are unchanged in any way by Amendment 5. They were strong to begin with. They’re strong now. Amendment 5 was something that sounded good. It was a feel good thing. And it was worded in such a way that it made people think ‘wow, if I don’t vote for this then I’m going to be losing something.’”
“And that’s completely false,” she added. “It did nothing to expand rights for anybody except criminals.”
When asked whether the Missouri Supreme Court would provide the ultimate clarity on Amendment 5, Joyce replied: “My question would be why the heck are we amending the Constitution to create no benefit for law-abiding people and then saying ‘Supreme Court fix this?’”
“What in the world is that? I mean, it makes no sense whatsoever,” she said. “We cannot be cavalier with our gun laws. We just can’t. I mean, if we’re going to do constitutional amendments – and I don’t even know why we’re doing that – let’s do a constitutional amendment about the state bird. Let’s do something that isn’t going to result in people being killed on the street.”
Too little, too late?
In any event, Joyce and Peters-Baker’s arguments weren’t convincing enough to prevent Amendment 5 from passing.
Unlike other ballot measures last year – such as the so-called “Right to Farm” amendment – there wasn’t exactly a vigorous opposition campaign to derail Amendment 5. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that pushes for gun control laws, gave about $134,000 to an anti-Amendment 5 committee. But those funds didn’t go to advertisements or boots on the grounds, but rather attorneys trying to upend Amendment 5 through the courts.
When asked if Amendment 5 opponents should have mounted a more vigorous campaign, state Rep. Stacey Newman replied: “Possibly.
“You look at Missouri, you look at our statistics in terms of how voters vote,” said Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat and one of the General Assembly’s strongest proponents of restricting firearms. “All these things cost money. And that’s the sad thing is that organizations have to beef up to spend millions of dollars to inform voters of things that are so dangerous like those measures were. And the money’s not there.”
Both Peters-Baker and Joyce have expressed some hope that the legislature will provide some clarity to Amendment 5. But whether that will actually occur, Joyce said, remains to be seen.
“There are some people who say that Amendment 5 cannot possibly be fixed, because it’s so incredibly flawed,” Joyce said. “I’m hopeful that they can do a legislative fix of it."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.