The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld a state law that bans all felons -- even those convicted of nonviolent crimes -- from possessing a weapon.
"Missouri's constitution does not prohibit the legislature from restricting nonviolent felons' right to possess firearms," judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote for the five-judge majority in one of three opinions on the issue released Tuesday. "Section 571.070.1 survived strict scrutiny review under the prior version of article I, section 23, and this Court already has held that Amendment 5 did not substantially change article I, section 23. The statutory bar is valid."
The long arc of litigation
The cases are the latest in a series of seven dealing with the reach of Amendment 5.
In August 2014, voters in Missouri made the right to keep and bear arms unalienable, and limited restrictions on that right to convicted violent felons and those found by a court to be dangerous because of mental illness.
A coalition led by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson failed to knock the measure off the ballot because the legal challenge was filed too late. An attempt to have the election thrown out also failed because the court in an unsigned opinion ruled that Amendment 5 did not make major changes to Missouri's gun laws and therefore the summary was fair.
Last August, the Supreme Court ruled that the felon-in-possession statute survived strict scrutiny, a level of review that requires the state to prove that the law is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. Those cases, however, were filed before Amendment 5 passed.
On Tuesday, the court finally addressed whether Amendment 5 made a difference when it came to the felon-in-possession statute. The answer, it said, was no.
Because Amendment 5 did not actually make a major change to Missouri's gun laws (as determined by Doston's case), and because the felon-in-possession statute had already survived strict scrutiny, (as determined by the August 2015 rulings), "the statutory bar is constitutional."
"I'm thrilled," said Beth Orwick, the chief trial deputy with the St. Louis circuit attorney's office who led the court fight. "We were really concerned that Amendment 5 would impact public safety. But through the court process, we were able to make sure that we were able to enforce the felon-in-possession laws, and I think this is going to have a good impact on our ability to fight crime here in the city."
The law's challengers had a predictably different reaction.
"Anyone who cares about individual liberty in Missouri should be very concerned by the approach that the Missouri Supreme Court has taken," said Dave Roland, the litigation director for the Freedom Center of Missouri.
For one thing, he said, the judges improperly applied the strict scrutiny standard. That level of review requires judges to presume a law is unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court started from the opposite side.
"They’ve also tried to leave themselves a little bit of wiggle room," Roland said. "They’ve suggested that strict scrutiny means different things in different contexts. Essentially, it lets judges pick and choose which rights they think are important."
Roland said the case law is now settled around the felon-in-possession statute, but he expects challenges to other gun restrictions. Orwick, with the circuit attorney's office, said her team is prepared to go back to court as often as needed.