News Column

Missourians Balk at Planned Gun Amendment

May 2, 2013

Jason Hancock

The right to bear arms stands firmly enshrined in Missouri's constitution.

Republican lawmakers, fearful that a push for gun control at the federal level will result in strict new regulations, believe that right needs to be strengthened.

But in pushing new state constitutional protections for gun rights, lawmakers have managed to stir fear they could also inadvertently cause a flood of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of current criminal laws regulating gun possession.

"We want to ensure that any proposed changes to the Missouri Constitution do not inadvertently hinder prosecution of state crimes such as unlawful use of a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm and armed criminal action," said Eric Zahnd, Platte County prosecuting attorney and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The Missouri Constitution currently says, "The right of every citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or when lawfully summoned in aid of the civil power, shall not be questioned; but this shall not justify the wearing of concealed weapons."

The proposed amendment adds provisions defining the right to bear arms as "unalienable" and requiring the state to defend against any infringement of that right. It also removes the provision regarding concealed weapons.

If passed by both the House and Senate, the constitutional amendment would need to be approved by Missouri voters.

"Any time the public has a fear that our rights are being infringed upon, then they need the opportunity to have their voices heard," said Rep. Caleb Jones, a California, Mo., Republican sponsoring the proposed amendment. "This will let everyone know, not just in Missouri, but the entire country, that we want to protect our right to bear arms."

Zahnd said his organization is not opposed to the amendment but wants to make sure it is worded correctly in order to avoid repeating a situation that occurred in Louisiana.

Last year, Louisiana voters by a huge majority approved a new state constitutional amendment that declared that the "right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental right."

A lawsuit was filed shortly after the amendment went into effect arguing that a state law making it illegal for a felon to own a firearm infringes upon that fundamental right. In March, a judge agreed and ruled the ban on felons possessing firearms unconstitutional.

That case is now before the Louisiana Supreme Court.

"The last thing we want to do is to reset any of the laws we already have in place that protect us," Jones said.

In an attempt to soothe concerns, Jones included a line in the proposed amendment stating that the state must uphold and defend the right to bear arms "except as authorized by law pursuant to this Constitution."

"That was included after conversations with several local prosecutors to make sure we protect our constitutional rights without overreaching," Jones said.

But critics argue Republicans are playing a dangerous game by continuing to push the change to Missouri's constitution.

"Once something is in the constitution, it's hard to undo it," said Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat. "If we do this, it could result in a judge throwing out laws on the books now that keep us safe."

Newman said the real motivation behind such bills is to stoke fear among the base of the Republican Party for political gain.

"If your intent is not to undo our state's gun laws," she said, "then why take the risk?"

The proposed amendment is just one of a long list of gun-related bills making their way through the General Assembly this year. Lawmakers are also considering legislation making it a felony to enforce federal gun laws in Missouri; expanding who can legally carry a weapon; and allowing certain school personnel to carry concealed weapons on school grounds.

Shortly after the state Senate passed a nearly identical gun-rights constitutional amendment last month, the bill's sponsor -- Republican Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia -- said that if lawmakers allow for the erosion of even one constitutional right, "then we acknowledge that every one of those rights is vulnerable, that any of them can be taken from us. We cannot allow this to happen."

The House could take up its version of the amendment as early as Thursday. Jones said he also plans to push for passage of the Senate version, which is currently assigned to a committee he chairs.


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Source: Copyright Kansas City Star (MO) 2013

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