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While Missouri continues to struggle with one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the country, state lawmakers are advancing a litany of bills aimed at further loosening the state's gun laws.

One proposal would allow guns on college campuses, while another would ban churches from prohibiting guns in places of worship. Others aim to keep local authorities from banning guns on public transit and property owners from banning guns in parked cars.

But the legislation drawing the most attention and scrutiny from law enforcement, is the "Second Amendment Preservation Act."

The bill, which has already been approved by the Missouri House, would deem federal gun laws to be infringements on Missourians' right to bear arms and restrict local law enforcement agencies from collaborating with federal agents on certain crime-fighting efforts.

Earlier this month, legislators heard opposition from business leaders and police who said the bills will not help cities decrease the rising murders and violent crime. St. Louis and Kansas City broke homicide records in 2020, with no sign of slowing this year.

"The more people who are armed, the higher potential for criminal activity and tragic, fatal accidents," St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell said. "These bills are dangerous and take us in the wrong direction. We're not going to decrease crime and keep our communities safer with more guns in more hands."

Missouri had the nation's sixth-highest gun-related death rate in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate has steadily increased since Missouri passed its first conceal-carry law in 2003. The rate includes intentional and accidental deaths.

Proponents of the bills argue gun owners want to be able to protect their loved ones in any setting — whether it be on a bus or in a church.

"People need to have this ability, especially in these violent areas, to protect themselves," Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin said during a committee hearing on the bill to allow guns on public transit. "When they are bringing their children on these things and some violent maniac decides to open fire, to have that ability to protect life and limb."

Former Democratic state Rep. Stacey Newman, who served in the House from 2009-19, argues gun bills have become increasingly more "extreme" in Missouri.

"It's all about a message to your base voter that, 'You can't take our guns away,'" she said. "Then you transpose that with the Capitol insurrection, and I think people should take a second and ask, 'What's the real intent here?'"

Missouri's gun laws consistently rank among the least restrictive on the Gifford Law Center's annual scorecards for states.

Newman said it's a trend that has progressed over the last 20 years as Republican dominance of Missouri politics has grown.

In 1999, Missouri residents voted down a National Rifle Association- backed state ballot measure to allow concealed weapons permits to eligible citizens.

In 2003, Republicans gained the majority in the House and the Senate. That year, they successfully passed a "right to carry" law that required sheriffs to issue a concealed-carry permit if gun owners take a firearms safety course and pass a background check.

Four years later, Missouri repealed the requirement to have a license and pass a background check before purchasing a handgun. Gun homicides in Missouri increased by 25 percent in the three years following the repeal of the law — from 2008-10, according to a report through the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

In 2016, Republicans were able to override then-Gov. Jay Nixon's veto to allow Missourians 19 and older to carry concealed guns without a permit. The Legislature also passed a "stand your ground" law that same year.

Newman remembers when the Second Amendment Preservation Act was first introduced and nearly passed in 2013. The bill fell one vote short of being enacted when two Republican senators joined with Democrats to prevent an override of the governor's veto.

This year, however, if legislators approve the bill it would go to Republican Gov. Mike Parson, increasing its chances of becoming law.

The House bill would prohibit any state or local officer from enforcing federal firearms laws that "infringe" on a person's right to bear arms.

Some of those laws deemed invalid would include imposing certain taxes on firearms, requiring gun owners to register their weapons and laws prohibiting "law-abiding" residents from possessing or transferring their guns.

"We, as a state, have always agreed that our Second Amendment rights are so sacred, so protected, I think we know best what should happen in our state," said bill sponsor Rep. Jered Taylor, a Republican who represents Christian County.

Officers who attempt to enforce the federal firearms laws could be "permanently ineligible" from serving in Missouri and on the hook for potential court costs and fines, according to the bill. The law enforcement agencies themselves could also face fines.

"Sovereign, official, or qualified immunity shall not be an affirmative defense in such actions," the bill states.

'A public health crisis'

Allen Rostron, a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, said this year's version of the Second Amendment Preservation Act is less extreme than the one proposed in 2013 and may prevail in a legal challenge.

The 2013 bill would have prevented federal agents, including the FBI, from enforcing federal gun laws within the state of Missouri, he said.

"That was clearly invalid," Rostron said. "If there is a valid federal law, that's the supreme law of the land."

Missouri was trying to nullify federal law "almost like back during the Civil War era," he said.

This bill would prohibit local and state law enforcement from aiding federal agents, which is within Missouri's authority to do, he said.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden said his officers serve on several federal task forces that enforce federal gun laws.

"The department would not want our violent crime reduction efforts hindered by legislation which reduces our prosecutorial options in these instances," Hayden said in a statement to the Missouri Independent.

Various other law enforcement leaders echoed these concerns during a hearing for the Senate bill as well.

Karen Rogers, volunteer chapter lead for Moms Demand Action, said her organization is not trying to take away people's guns, since "some of our members are gun owners."

"We would like to see an understanding that gun violence is a public crisis and work with our legislators to help address that," she said.

In 2019, Missouri had the highest gun-death rate for African Americans in the country, with a rate of 57.7 for every 100,000 Black residents, according to the CDC. That was nearly three times the national rate for Black firearm deaths.

Deterring crime occurs best when federal and local agents work together, said Bell, St. Louis County's prosecutor.

"As the elected prosecutor in Missouri's most populous county," he said, "I beg all legislators on both sides of the aisle to reject all of these bills that, if passed, will result in more death but not less crime."

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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