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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Cities make their case to Missouri Supreme Court that the state's gun law is unconstitutional

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to the state's Second Amendment Preservation Act.

A lawyer representing St. Louis told the Missouri Supreme Court on Monday that a state law that prohibits the enforcement of federal gun regulations was unconstitutional and an “unintelligible statute” that has confused law enforcement.

Robert Dierker, deputy St. Louis city counselor, took issue before the state’s highest court with the Second Amendment Preservation Act. The court heard an appeal by St. Louis and Jackson County, which had unsuccessfully tried to persuade a Cole County judge to block the law.

SAPA prohibits the enforcement of federal gun regulations by Missouri law enforcement personnel and allows anyone to sue police departments for up to $50,000 if they believe their firearms rights have been infringed.

“I would say that the separation of power problems looms very large in this case,” Dierker said. “The plain language of the statute says that a range of ill-defined — indeed undefined — federal laws regulations infringe the Second Amendment and will not be enforced in Missouri.”

Dierker said SAPA violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from interfering with the government's enforcement of constitutional powers.

Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer defended SAPA at the oral arguments. He argued that the court didn’t need to hear the case yet because St. Louis and Jackson County didn’t argue the constitutionality of SAPA in the Cole County Court case.

“They’re asking things that are extraordinary departures from this court's jurisprudence again and again and again,” Sauer said. “The natural way to go forward would be just to remand it to the trial court to consider the constitutional issues.”

Dierker argued sending the decision back to a lower court would create multiple inconsistent rulings that don’t address the constitutionality of the law.

Sauer added there are currently five lawsuits challenging the law, each of which could serve as avenues to challenge its constitutionality.

In a separate case filed by the south St. Louis suburb of Arnold, 60 police chiefs hope to have the law clarified. In a brief supporting Arnold’s lawsuit, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Organization argued the law puts law enforcement at risk of facing lawsuits for working with federal partners.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in a brief that since SAPA went into effect, more than 12 law enforcement agencies in Missouri have ended partnerships with the federal agency.

Departments like the Missouri State Highway Patrol have stopped participating in some investigations and no longer add information to national databases used to solve crimes.

That’s because police worry that cooperating with federal law enforcement could land them in court, Dierker said.

“The problem is that the plaintiffs' law enforcement employees regularly participate with the federal government in attempting to suppress illegal firearms and other illegal criminal activity in which firearms are inevitably associated,” Dierker said.

A similar law is currently making its way through the Iowa legislature, where lobbyist Aaron Dorr is pushing the bill. Dorr is a Second Amendment absolutist who says the NRA is too soft on gun rights and lobbied in Missouri to pass SAPA in 2021.

Dorr leads the Iowa Gun Owners lobbyist group as well as the Missouri Firearms Coalition. The coalition filed a court brief asking the Missouri Supreme Court to leave the preservation act intact.

The court did not indicate when a decision might be made on the case.

Kavahn Mansouri is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @kavahnmansouri

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.

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