A week after Gov. Mike Parson called for the Legislature to address violent crime in Missouri, two groups of lawmakers met separately to propose their solutions.
In his State of the State speech Jan. 15, Parson called for the Legislature to combat violent crime in three ways: increasing protection for victims and witnesses, providing more mental health resources, and strengthening laws to target violent criminals.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard three bills proposed by Republican lawmakers that would impose stiffer penalties for some violent criminals.
House Democrats separately held a news conference to pitch restrictions on guns, including "red flag" laws, requiring dealers to conduct background checks and prohibiting minors from owning handguns.
The Senate Judiciary committee heard Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, and Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, propose raising the minimum sentence for armed criminal action from three to five years, and raise penalties for second and third convictions from five to 10 years and 10 to 15 years, respectively.
Luetkemeyer proposed a similar bill to Onder. Luetkemeyer's bill makes the same changes to minimum sentences and also requires any sentence for armed criminal action has to be served consecutive to their other conviction, resulting in a longer overall sentence. Under Luetkemeyer's bill, anyone convicted of armed criminal action wouldn't be eligible for probation, parole or conditional release until he or she serves at least 85 percent of the sentence in prison.
Luetkemeyer and Onder said recent focus on criminal justice reform has led prosecutors and judges to be lenient on violent offenders, not charging them or giving them probation instead of sentencing them to prison for violent crimes. They argued their bill would make sure repeat, violent offenders were sent to prison.
"We must acknowledge that the proper place for violent criminals is in prison, not on probation," Luetkemeyer said.
Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, argued their bills didn't address the root causes behind violent crime, and they were repeating a tough on crime approach that hadn't previously worked. Doubling down on law enforcement takes resources away from things like improving education and addressing poverty, she said. The Legislature also hasn't done enough to help felons transition back into society, where they're often excluded from jobs because of their criminal history.
"People have to feed themselves," she said.
Darrell Moore, executive director of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said he was a law student when the Legislature made armed criminal action a crime in the late 1970s. The intent was to create an additional penalty for people who used guns to commit violent crimes, so it would have to be served consecutive to any other sentence, he said.
"The armed criminal action statute is one of the best tools we have dealing with dangerous and violent criminals," Moore said. "Unfortunately, some counties in the state have judges who apparently don't understand that this should be run consecutive."
Sarah Baker, legislative director of ACLU Missouri, said she appreciates Luetkemeyer and Onder are trying to get violent offenders off the streets, but she doesn't think enhancing armed criminal action will do that. For one, the offense isn't specifically gun-related, and she's heard of people getting armed criminal action charges over a chair or steel-toed boots.
"Stacking" consecutive sentences isn't effective, either, she argued. Putting an offender in prison longer isn't going to help them rehabilitate into someone who isn't dangerous, she said. The harsher penalties also give prosecutors too much leverage, and they could threaten to file armed criminal action charges to get someone to plead guilty to another charge.
"We already know at the federal level that 95 percent of cases are decided, not based on a jury trial, they're decided on a plea deal," Baker said. "We want to see more of these cases tried in open court."
In a similar attempt to curb violent crime, Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, proposed raising unlawful possession of a firearm — Missouri's law against felons having guns — from a class D to a class C felony if the person had been convicted of a dangerous felony, armed criminal action or trafficking drugs. That would raise the penalty from up to seven years in prison to three to 10 years in prison.
Luetkemeyer, presenting Libla's bill in his absence, said the charge would still be treated as a class D felony for anyone who had previously been convicted of a felony other than those state law defines as dangerous felonies, armed criminal action or drug trafficking.
"These are people who did not get the message the first time they committed acts of violence with a gun, and now, they're back doing it again," he said.
Moore said he supports criminal justice reform for nonviolent offenders but not for "people that are killing our children, robbing people at gunpoint and carjacking." Moore said he doesn't know if the law would deter people from committing violent crimes.
"Some people will never, ever be deterred," Moore said. "But they need to be locked up."
House Democrats also outlined their plans to address gun violence, highlighting 10 bills they've filed:
Rep. Richard Brown, D-Kansas City, proposed prohibiting people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns.
Rep. Doug Beck, D-Affton, proposed making it illegal for anyone on the federal Terrorist Screening Center's No-Fly List or who is a member of a domestic or international terrorist group to have a gun, and to knowingly sell one to them.
Rep. Alan Green, D-Florissant, Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, and Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, have all proposed allowing a judge to determine someone poses an extreme risk to themselves or others and can't possess a firearm. Their bills also allow law enforcement to impound that person's weapons with a court order.
Razer, Lavender and Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City, all proposed requiring firearms dealers to run a background check before selling a firearm. Bland Manlove's bill does the same for ammunition.
Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, proposed making it a misdemeanor to leave a "readily dischargeable" firearm near a child, and the child fires the weapon, hurting themselves or others.
Rep. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, proposed prohibiting minors from owning handguns.
Out of those 10 bills, none have been assigned to a committee for a hearing.
House Democrats also said they will work through the budget process to get funding for initiatives that address the root causes of violence, such as after-school programs, services for victims and suicide prevention, according to a news release. They'll also propose allocating money for re-entry programs and eliminating financial incentives for local jails to keep low-level offenders for long periods of time, according to the release.