After a year in which 93 percent of its homicides involved guns, Kansas City, Missouri, continues to rank among the most violent cities in the country,
So it's an issue of key concern in this spring's mayoral primary race. At a forum last week, nine of the city's 11 mayoral candidates took the opportunity to share their perspectives and solutions.
The candidates, who sat side by side inside the sanctuary at Hillside Christian Church, each said they oppose bills in the Missouri Legislature that would remove restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in some public places. The candidates also agreed that gun violence should be treated as a matter of public health, much like an illness or disease.
From there, the candidates emphasized different priorities.
During the forum, which was sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, they gave opening statements and were asked three questions.
Steve Miller: Miller, an attorney who formerly chaired the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, argued that lax Missouri gun laws need reform. And that, he said, requires help from Kansas City’s cross-state rival.
“We're going to put together a three-year legislative agenda in which we take the combined muscle of St. Louis and Kansas City and we focus on those efforts that are most important to urban areas.”
Jermaine Reed: Reed, who is being term-limited from the Kansas City Council, said fighting the Legislature on gun laws feels like “David and Goliath.”
“Folks do not understand the very basic thing that we’re faced with in very urban areas,” he said.
In 2014, the Kansas City Council banned the open carry of firearms, but state legislators quickly passed a bill to prohibit cities from enforcing such laws. And in 2016 state lawmakers dropped permitting requirements for the concealed carry of firearms and passed a “stand your ground” law, making Missouri’s gun laws among the nation’s most permissive.
Jolie Justus: Councilwoman Justus touted her experience in the state Senate.
“A lot of my time down there was spent stopping bad things from happening,” she said. “Because we don't live in a state right now where the Legislature now necessarily has the best interest of those of us who are living in some of the most vulnerable parts of the state.”
Scott Taylor: Councilman Taylor, who like Reed is bumping up against term limits this election, said the state’s laws aren’t going to change unless fewer people vote for pro-gun candidates.
“Until that mix changes, we’re going to just be going down there advocating a lot,” he said.
Taylor said more funding is needed to teach young people conflict resolution skills. He also suggested bumping the maximum reward for crime tips from $10,000 to $20,000.
Steve Klein: Three-time candidate Klein, who manages a bank branch, said the city needs more control over its police force, which is currently managed by a board appointed by the governor.
“We are the only city in the United States that does not have local control of its police department,” he said. “So that's either an incredibly brilliant idea that only we have or it's an incredibly bad idea.”
Missouri voters returned the St. Louis Police department to local control in a 2012 referendum.
Phil Glynn: “This crisis of violence we’re living through is an economic crisis,” said Glynn, a political activist and small business owner.
Glynn focused on the need for affordable housing, access to jobs and a better transportation network.
Scott Wagner: But councilman Wagner, also in his final term, said those problems also existed in 2014, when the city’s homicide rate fell almost 20 percent.
“We didn't have any more or any less affordable housing,” he said. “We didn't have any more or any less educational achievement. But what we did say was to those who perpetrate violence that, ‘we know who you are, we know who your friends are and we're gonna offer you services and if you don't take the services, we're going to prosecute you.’”
Wagner said crime spiked again because criminals learned the threat of prosecution was an empty one.
“When you ask what should we do to improve our numbers in Kansas City, it's real easy: make cases and prosecute people,” he said.
Alissia Canady: Councilwoman Canady, herself a former Jackson County prosecutor, said harsh prosecution brings a new set of problems.
“We took an approach that was very heavy handed and we locked up a lot of people's children,” she said. “And mass incarceration is a problem in this community. So the reason why we haven't gone back to that is because they realized there was some error in that approach”
Quinton Lucas: Councilman Lucas urged stricter oversight of COMBAT, the county's Community-Backed Anti-Crime Tax that brings in about $20 million per year.
“COMBAT funds a lot of things, but what we need to do a better job of realizing is how impactful is it, how much are we doing to make sure that we're getting real results,” he said.
County legislators last year voted to give Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker control of the program over the objections of County Administrator Frank White.
Baker and Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway have initiated separate audits of the program.
Lucas, who has served on the city council since 2015, said the barrage of homicides since he took office represents “the greatest failure professionally that I’ve had in my live."
"There’s not a day we shouldn’t think about the tragedies that touch so many families,” he added.
Candidates Clay Chastain and Vincent Lee did not attend the forum.
Kansas City voters will wean the field of candidates in a primary election April 2. The top two candidates then advance to the general election on June 18.