Is conceal-carry public’s choice?

We listened to voters, bill’s backers say
Wednesday, October 22, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:07 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As the conceal-and-carry law awaits judgment from a St. Louis Circuit Court, the question of whether the law was the will of the people still hangs in the balance.

In 1999, Missouri voters struck down, by a margin of 4 percent, a referendum that would have allowed most citizens to carry concealed guns. The issue remained dormant until this year, when the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly passed a new conceal-and-carry law.

The legislators’ actions might have seemed an affront to those voters who thought the rejection of Proposition B would end the discussion of whether Missourians should carry concealed firearms. But lawmakers say the bill was a completely different piece of legislation than the one voters rejected in 1999.

“The House bill was not a disregard for the results of Proposition B,” said Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, who supported the bill. Bearden’s district lies in St. Charles County, one of nine counties that rejected Proposition B.

“Proposition B was used to shape the new piece of legislation,” Bearden said.

The conceal-and-carry law now faces the possibility of a permanent injunction —an option Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer will consider when he hears arguments Thursday about whether the law is compatible with the Missouri Constitution. A vague clause regarding the right to bear arms in the constitution has been interpreted differently by both sides.

The clause states that the right of Missourians to bear arms in defense of home, person and property shall not be questioned, but that the right does not “justify” allowing citizens to carry concealed guns.

Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, said he received a 50-50 reaction from voters who contacted him after the bill was passed.

“The bill that we passed in the legislature was much different than what went before the people,” said Lembke. His campaign for office emphasized the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: : “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

“The will of the people was certainly done,” Lembke added.

Rep. Annie Reinhart, R-Liberty, said she supported the legislature’s conceal-and-carry bill because she believes it is more restrictive than similar laws around the country. Her district lies mainly in Clay County, where voters rejected Proposition B.

“I have always been very up-front about a conceal-carry law,” Reinhart said, adding she’s confident that problems with the new law can be addressed.

“Can we make it better? Yes.”

Provisions such as barring concealed handguns from school property and requiring additional firearms training may explain why many legislators felt comfortable overriding the vote on the 1999 referendum and Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of the legislature’s version of the law. Bearden said that, in particular, language that allows local school boards to ban weapons from school property was one example of how legislators improved the bill rejected by voters.

The bill also prohibits people from carrying concealed guns in certain public places and raises the eligible age for a permit from 21 to 23.

The basic premise of the law created by legislators is, however, no different from that of Proposition B — that is, the right to carry hidden handguns.

Richard Miller, one of the two attorneys representing the 10 plaintiffs in the lawsuit being reviewed by Ohmer, believes the state has expressed historic opposition to its citizens carrying concealed guns.

“If you look at the legislative history from 1875, it calls concealed-carry an evil engaged in by enemies of the social order,” said Miller, a Kansas City lawyer who, along with St. Louis attorney Burton Newman, is challenging the new law.

“The key point is that we’re not going in and saying whether conceal-and-carry is a good idea or a bad idea. We filed a lawsuit raising solely the constitutionality of conceal-and-carry.”

Miller also believes that the Missouri constitution is a “restriction on the legislature” and that all power rests with the people. Beyond that, Miller sees the law as poorly drafted and allowing too many loopholes that might jeopardize the safety of the public.

How Ohmer interprets the constitutionality of the new law will be the deciding factor in the conceal-and-carry suit. Lembke said the clause in the constitution that supports a citizen’s right to protect home and family justifies the state’s conceal-and-carry law.

“Even a third-grader could see that the sentence he is talking about is applied to the right to keep and bear arms,” Lembke said.

Cathy McGinniss, executive director of the Institute for Peace and Justice, said that organization gladly lent its name to the lawsuit. She worries about the use of guns during domestic disputes and the increased possibility of children harming themselves.

“The more guns that are in people’s hands, the more they are likely to use them,” said McGinniss, who believes heavy lobbying by pro-gun advocates might have overly influenced legislators.

“I think a lot of this has to do with the (gun) lobbying groups,” she said.

The question that remains unanswered is whether the citizens of Missouri favored a concealed-guns law. Both sides expect the case to go to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, who, like her Columbia colleagues, Rep. Chuck Graham and Sen. Ken Jacob, voted against the conceal-and-carry law, said voters in her district still seem to have the same opinion of conceal-and-carry that they did in 1999, when 60.2 percent of Boone County voters opposed Proposition B.

“I think that it would have been more appropriate to again resubmit the issue to the voters,” Wilson said.

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