As Newtown's impact reverberates, Missouri lawmakers wonder what to do next | St. Louis Public Radio

As Newtown's impact reverberates, Missouri lawmakers wonder what to do next

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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2012 - For some Missouri state lawmakers, the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school is prompting introspection and a call for action.

For other legislators, not enough time has passed to decide what to do next -- if anything. At least one Republican has offered the suggestion of arming school personnel, an idea floated earlier this week by St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch.

But it’s a fair assumption that the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature is unlikely to pass sweeping gun control laws. After all, the General Assembly in recent years approved expansions of the state’s conceal and carry system. They also implemented the so-called “Castle Doctrine” law, which shields from lawsuits people who use lethal force with a gun to defend their property.

In a state where even Democrats tout their allegiance to the Second Amendment, proponents of gun control acknowledge their uphill climb.

“My analogy was, 'All of a sudden a plane crashes,' ” said state Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights. “Thank God we haven’t had a horrific one in some time. But every time there is one, it’s immediately ‘what caused this? How can we prevent this in the future.’ And everybody is nervous about getting on an airplane again.

“Nobody says ‘we need to stop and grieve for a week before we do anything,’” she added. “Why should firearms be any different?”

Time for a change?

Last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., killed 28 people – including 20 children. The latest in a string of high-profile mass shootings, the event has prompted calls for action.

President Barack Obama may have set the tone when he stated at a memorial service Sunday that while “no single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society … that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

“Because what choice do we have?” he added. “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

The debate has focused attention again on firearms. Among other things, some Democratic members of Congress have discussed reinstituting the federal assault weapons ban. Other legislators – such as U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – have suggested the need to address mental-health issues.

Whether any such action comes at the federal level – especially with a U.S. Congress divided politically – remains to be seen. It’s even more uncertain whether the shootings will prompt change in Missouri, especially on guns.

That’s because Missouri lawmakers have consistently voted for legislation scaling back curbs on firearms. Those measures include:

  • Implementation of a conceal and carry program, which became effective after both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly overrode Gov. Bob Holden’s veto in 2003.
  • Passage of the so-called “Castle Doctrine” bill, which provided immunity for Missourians who use deadly force to protect their property.
  • Lowering the age to obtain a conceal and carry permit from 23 to 21.
  • Permitting legislators and staffers to conceal and carry firearms in the Missouri Capitol Building.

While not providing specifics, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, told St. Louis Public Radio on Monday that “when things this traumatic occur, I think it causes in all of us in public policy to have a conversation with ourselves and be prepared to have a conversation with Missourians and other policy leaders about what we can do to minimize the possibility of something of this nature happening in our state.”

But Republican leaders in both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly don’t appear eager to talk. 

A spokesman for House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said Monday that Republicans were caucusing into the evening and would likely not be available for comment. Todd Scott, the chief of staff for incoming Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said in an e-mail that the “tragic situation is still so fresh that I don’t know if members of our caucus have really thought much about a legislative response.”

Rep. Sue Allen – a Town and Country Republican who will become the chairwoman of an appropriations committee overseeing the Department of Mental Health – also didn’t return a message. And Riddle, R-Mokane, told the Beacon that it was too close to the shootings to talk about what lawmakers should next. 

One person who is speaking out is state Rep. Stanley Cox, a Sedalia Republican who for the past two years was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Cox told the Associated Press that the state should consider allowing teachers or other personnel to carry weapons could prevent Sandy Hook from reoccurring in Missouri.

The recently re-elected lawmaker -- who did not return a message from the Beacon -- told the wire service “there is a good argument to be made that if people were there who were trained in the use of firearms, who were good citizens, that this would not be as horrible of a situation as it is.”

Multi-faceted action

While gun control is driving much of the national conversation, at least one Democratic lawmaker is striving for a multi-faceted approach.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, is in a unique position among state legislators. Not only does Chappelle-Nadal represent a district in St. Louis County, she also holds a seat on the University City School Board.

She said in an interview that the Newtown shootings should prompt legislators and community members to reexamine policy priorities on a state and local level. For instance, she’s already asked her district to review its safety procedures, and she plans to convene a task force to see how other school districts in her Senate district tackle school safety.

At the very least, Chappelle-Nadal says that legislators should “review at the state level what is acceptable and what is unacceptable for child safety within a school district.

“We may on top of that have some things that we mandate,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “I don’t know what they would be, because we haven’t really studied it like we should as a legislature. And I know with these incidents that are happening, especially within my district, we’re going to come up with a baseline of procedures that are accepted throughout the state.

“The second piece of that is every district is different,” she added. “We have over 520 school districts and there are different things that are needed. So I do want to let that language be broad enough where school districts can make a determination of what policies and procedures they need to fit their districts.”

Those “incidents” that Chappelle-Nadal referred to were two shootings that claimed the lives of University City students. The first happened last week when 12-year-old Demetri Phillips was shot and killed by another 12 year old. The other instance occurred Sunday night, when a 17-year-old student from the Lieberman Learning Center was shot and killed.

“We had two situations within one school district. And on top of that, we have 26 people in a school that were also killed,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “It is obvious with all this stuff going on, we need to deal with the issue of gun safety. But more than just gun safety – and you’ve seen in the reports – you need to take mental health seriously. We have to do that. And year after year, some in the legislature have wanted to take money away from the mental health department.”

She says that she also wants policymakers to study how school districts respond to children with mental illnesses.

“Because more and more people are being identified with mental health issues and personality disorders, it doesn’t start in adulthood,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “You can see some of those things occurring in the schools by the child’s behavior. So I really want to look at identifying measures that each school district has for policies we have a state that deals with identifying students who have mental disorders. And how do we follow up with that as a state at each single school district? How do we deal with that?”

In the wilderness?

It should come as no surprise that Newman would advocate for stricter gun control laws.

Newman was an active member of the Million Mom March, the group that formed in the late 1990s to push for gun control laws. And in 2003, she joined Jeanne Kirkton -- now a Democratic state legislator -- to lobby against conceal and carry in Missouri.

When it comes to specific responses, Newman would like the U.S. Congress to renew the assault weapons ban. Closer to home, she wants to require background checks at gun shows and to take away firearms in cases of domestic violence.

“Only six states require universal background checks, just three states require background checks on just handguns sales,” Newman said. “But 33 states including Missouri have nothing – no actions, nothing. And it’s been a concern of mine for 12 years.”

But Newman is realistic about those measures passing the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The legislature, for instance, passed the bill lowering the conceal and carry age in 2011. Nixon signed that measure into law.

Indeed, in Missouri, Democrats – especially running statewide – tout their support of gun rights. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster trumpeted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association. while Nixon has commonly issued press releases about his love of hunting deer.

At the state legislative level, a bloc of Democratic lawmakers – particularly from outstate Missouri – regularly vote against gun control laws. In this past election cycle, state Rep. Terry Swinger, D-Caruthersville, openly touted his ‘A’ rating from the NRA in his campaign ads.

Arguably the last major Missouri Democrat to successfully challenge gun-rights advocates was Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1999, when he actively opposed a statewide ballot proposal, Proposition B, to allow Missourians to carry concealed weapons.

Although a gun owner, Carnahan contended the initiative was unsafe and could lead to concealed guns in schools and other public places.

Carnahan succeeded in defeating Prop B, largely because the concealed-weapon proposal was overwhelmingly opposed in Missouri's urban and suburban areas.

The NRA had announced plans to run a heavy anti-Carnahan ad campaign in October 2000, just days before he died in a plane crash while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. The gun-rights group dropped its planned blitz, which some analysts at the time say may have helped Carnahan go on to win the seat posthumously.

But four years later, the NRA and others succeeded in persuading the General Assembly, by then under GOP control, to implement a concealed-carry law despite the 1999 vote.  A solid bloc of Republicans, plus a few rural Democrats,  overturned the veto of then-Gov. Bob Holden, a rural Democrat who raised objections similar to those of his predecessor.

Newman describes the hold that the NRA has on Republicans and some Democrats as a “this culture of ‘you don’t buck them’ if you want to be re-elected.” But she said plenty of her constituents in her St. Louis County-based district support her advocacy for gun control.

“Every time there is a gun massacre like this, I get calls saying ‘Please, Stacey, do something,’” Newman said. “And you know the climate in Jefferson City is if I’m going to sponsor a bill, it’s most likely going to get thrown in the trash."

But, now says Newman, “It’s horrific that it takes 20 little kids for people to all of a sudden understand that this is the way we’ve all been living for years.”

Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies contributed some information for this article.