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Missouri wants federal DOJ lawsuit against gun law dismissed

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An ATF agent lifts the crime scene tape. The Justice Department is challenging a Missouri law it says seeks to override federal gun laws and has hurt local and federal law enforcement cooperation.

Associated Press file photo

Missouri is trying to stop a Justice Department lawsuit against its aggressive gun law by saying state officials are not responsible for enforcing the measure… an argument that echoes Texas’ defense of its new abortion law.

When Gov. Mike Parson signed the Second Amendment Preservation Act, or SAPA, last June, the law sparked fear and confusion among police chiefs and sheriffs. It prohibits state and local law enforcement from enforcing certain federal gun laws.

Some departments have responded by restricting cooperation with federal authorities, such as joint drug task forces, or limiting information about gun serial numbers sent to federal databases. In one case, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper freed a federal fugitive.

Police chiefs told the Star that nearly a year after the law has been signed, uncertainty remains about its limits and requirements.

“Many departments are still struggling to interpret the level of co-investigation or assistance that we work with federal entities,” Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz said.

The Justice Department sued Missouri in February, alleging that Missouri’s gun law impedes their operations and violates the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, which ensures that federal law supersedes state law. A major hearing in the case is scheduled for June in Kansas City.

SAPA declares certain federal gun laws “invalid” if they have no equivalent in Missouri laws and prohibits local law enforcement from assisting federal agents in enforcing them. It is not enforced by any particular agency. Instead, people are allowed to sue law enforcement officials for alleged violations. Fines of up to $50,000 per violation are possible.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office now cites this set-up — enforcement through prosecution — to argue that the DOJ cannot be allowed to sue Missouri.

“A state official or state defendant who has no direct role in enforcing a challenged law is not a proper defendant,” Deputy Attorney General Jesus A. Osete wrote. in a motion to dismiss.

Schmitt, a Republican, is running for the US Senate. Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on the motion to dismiss.

The idea that state officials can’t be sued for a law because they don’t enforce it has been central to the defense of a sweeping abortion law that the Texas legislature has approved. just one day before the Missouri General Assembly passes SAPA in May 2021. Texas measure prohibits abortion after six weeks of pregnancybut like Missouri’s gun law, is enforced through prosecution.

The Texas law has so far successfully withstood legal challenges in part because of the difficulty of identifying defendants to prosecute, since state officials are not authorized to enforce its provisions. Last year, the US Supreme Court denied a request to block the law on an emergency basis.

Allen Rostron, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, said Missouri law doesn’t go as far as Texas law. Texas law allows virtually anyone to sue, while in Missouri only an “aggrieved party” can sue.

Still, the structure of the law could make it difficult to challenge the DOJ in court.

“I think the feds, they wanted to take legal action on this and make a point, I’m sure, but I feel like they probably have an uphill battle, on the government side federal, because of the way the law is written. “, said Rostron.

However, Esther Sanchez-Gomez, senior litigation attorney at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, questioned Missouri’s argument. While the law allows lawsuits by individuals, she said, it also requires officials to protect gun rights.

The law states that it is the “duty” of courts and law enforcement “to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to possess and bear arms” within the state.

“Even if there isn’t a specific enforcement mechanism, you can imagine that the attorney general could bring an action against a particular law enforcement group,” Sanchez-Gomez said.

Gun law is hampering Missouri police departments, officials say

In court filings, the DOJ says the Missouri law was passed to override federal gun laws and that it is a “black letter law” that under the US Constitution states cannot To do. He also offered statements from federal law enforcement officials describing how the law has had a chilling effect on efforts to protect public safety.

The DOJ said the Missouri State Crime Lab, operated by the Highway Patrol, refused to process evidence that would aid federal gun prosecutions. The Missouri Information and Analysis Center, also under the Highway Patrol umbrella, no longer cooperates with federal agencies investigating federal firearms violations. And the Highway Patrol, along with many other agencies, have suspended joint efforts to enforce federal gun laws.

Frederic Winston, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Kansas City field division, wrote in a statement filed in court in February that 13 of 53 state and local officers who had been delegated to the federal level had removed from participation in ATF working groups due to Missouri law.

The law “has an extremely negative effect on law enforcement and public safety in the State of Missouri,” Winston wrote.

State laws that attempt to override or undermine federal gun laws are nothing new. At least six states — including Texas and Kansas — have some form of Second Amendment “preservation” or “sanctuary” law.

Kansas law of 2013, which allows residents to ignore gun laws if the guns and accessories are made in the state and do not cross state lines, has proven ineffective. Two Kansas men were later convicted in federal court of having illegal mufflers, despite following state law.

But the Missouri law has produced a widespread chilling effect on law enforcement activity that does not appear to have occurred elsewhere. Sanchez-Gomez said other laws — whether at the state or local level — in the past have often tended to be tokenistic.

“I think the federal government’s case against Missouri is being watched…it will eventually be appealed regardless,” Sanchez-Gomez said. “But I think it’s going to be kind of an interesting test case in terms of the relationship between the states and the federal government that could have implications not just in the Second Amendment space.”

One of Missouri law enforcement’s most serious concerns, Ellisville Police Chief Steve Lewis said, is how state law has discouraged officers from sending information. on firearms at the National Crime Information Center, which can show if a gun is stolen or associated with a crime.

“The intent of the law, everyone understands,” said Lewis, whose department of about 30 officers covers a small area of ​​St. Louis County.

“The intent of the law is to protect the Second Amendment rights of Missouri citizens against any further attempts to restrict citizens’ rights to own firearms,” ​​he said. “The reality of the law is that there are no clarifying statements.”

For months, Lewis and other law enforcement officials have been asking lawmakers to change the law. Lewis said a change as simple as clarifying that the law only applies to future federal gun restrictions would ease their concerns.

Although Parson, a Republican, said at some point last year that he was open to reviewing the law, GOP lawmakers have shown little interest in reopening the debate.

“I think the legislator spoke loud and clear when we passed this law. There is no perfect law. We have to see how it works and see how it works. I think it’s working well,” said Sen. Eric Burlison, a Battlefield Republican and one of SAPA’s top supporters.

With the legislative session ending Friday, Missouri Democrats mounted a final push Monday to change the law. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, a pro-independence Democrat, has proposed an amendment removing a provision penalizing law enforcement officers who investigate federal gun crimes. The amendment, according to Rizzo, would also have closed a loophole in a six-year-old law that allows domestic abusers to carry guns.

“We’re not doing a big repeal of gun laws in the state of Missouri,” Rizzo said Monday. “It’s literally listening to law enforcement tell us ‘we have a problem with a section of this bill’…this solves that.”

The Missouri Senate rejected it, and the failure of the effort means the courts will likely determine SAPA’s fate. In addition to the federal lawsuit filed by the DOJ, St. Louis, St. Louis County, and Jackson County are challenging the law in state court.

The state affair is moving slowly, however. In April, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that counties could challenge the law’s constitutionality, sending the case back to circuit court after a Cole County judge previously blocked the lawsuit.

The Star’s Kacen Bayless contributed reporting

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Jonathan Shorman is the Kansas City Star’s senior political reporter, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered the Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He holds a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.