One night in the Missouri Capitol building in 2016, lawmakers made what some acknowledged at the time was a mistake — a mistake that, for four years, hasn’t been fixed.
Both the Senate and House voted to override then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 656, which allows conceal and carry without a permit. But by passing the bill, it inhibits law enforcement’s ability to prevent people with domestic violence misdemeanors from obtaining guns.
Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, said she remembers concerns expressed by sheriffs’ offices about a loophole that the bill creates. Under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, it’s illegal to “purchase, receive or possess” a firearm if someone has been “convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” When it became legal to conceal and carry without a permit in Missouri, law enforcement lost a method of restricting guns based on background checks, which they would have done when issuing permits.
Mitten remembers that support suddenly materialized to override the veto. But, there seemed to be an awareness of the loophole, and an agreement to fix it in the future.
Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, said she remembers the bill also caused concern for those worried about domestic violence, including survivors and advocates. In previous Missourian reporting and in recent interviews, she recounted that she and former Republican Rep. Donna Lichtenegger ran into National Rifle Association lobbyist Whitney O’Daniel, who said he was aware of the issue the night before the veto session.
“It was made mention that we can take care of that in a next legislative session, but that did not occur,” Swan said.
The Missourian and KBIA were unable to reach O’Daniel for comment.
Four years later, lawmakers have proposed bills every year to close the loophole; nothing has passed.
“You know, reasonable people can debate the merits of the rest of the legislation, but by removing the sheriff’s ability to be basically the last stopgap, it created a problem,” Mitten said. “And yet, here we are four years later.”
Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, is one of several lawmakers who has been trying to close what she calls the "deadly domestic violence loophole" for the past several years.
Swan said she hasn’t proposed any legislation to address the issue because it is not her area of expertise, as she specializes in health care and education. She said there might be a variety of reasons why the loophole hasn’t been closed, like the politically charged debate over gun rights or other legislative priorities leadership may have.
“I just don’t think that there’s a lot of awareness at this point, because it’s been a couple of years,” Swan said.
Yet at a Moms Demand Action rally at the Capitol in February, at least a hundred people crowded in the rotunda to hear from advocates, survivors and former law enforcement to advocate for bills that would add protections for survivors and families in danger of domestic abuse. Former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isome said keeping families safe during a crisis or instance of domestic violence has been an issue his entire career.
“But we know that it’s difficult to make sure that people who are convicted of violent incidents, make sure that they don’t possess weapons,” Isom said. “And so even though there was a loophole in 2016, and this loophole has been around a long time, I think officers recognize that they need more tools to keep these guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
According to a report by the Missouri State Highway Patrol issued on Feb. 28, there were 52 domestic violence-related homicides and suicides in 2019 reported to the Missouri Uniform Crime Reporting program.
Matthew Huffman, director of public affairs for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the loophole has been a longstanding issue, but that it has looked different during the pandemic. Due to the stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Mike Parson, Huffman said there was an increased likelihood for the frequency and severity of domestic violence incidents to go up.
“This isn’t about taking guns away from law-abiding folks,” Huffman said. “It’s if you are considered to be a danger to yourself and others, then you shouldn’t have access to firearms.”
Bills to mirror federal law were attempted during this past session. Of the more than 70 proposed gun-related bills that were proposed, six aimed to protect survivors of domestic violence by prohibiting guns from those who have a domestic violence misdemeanor, or if a full order of protection is in effect.
But Rep. Richard Brown, D-Kansas City, said his bill, HB 1260, which would have conformed Missouri to federal law regarding gun possession, was off the table when speaking with Republican Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr.
Despite repeated attempts by KBIA and the Missourian to contact Haahr, he could not be reached for comment.
Scott Jones, NRA state director for Missouri, denies that there is a loophole.
“Federal law prevents domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms, and no state law can overrule that,” Jones wrote. “Claiming Senate Bill 656 provided domestic violence offenders with a loophole to purchase firearms is yet another example of the lies or ignorance of gun control zealots.”
It is true that the federal law prevents domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms. However, Paula Rector, a senior instructor of criminology and criminal justice at Missouri State University, said Missouri law contradicts federal law — and this plays out in local courts.
“These domestic violence cases … and these protection orders are being processed in our county and at our county/state level, following county/state guidelines … that they are mandated to follow,” Rector said.
She used the example of legal medical marijuana facilities in Missouri. In theory, federal government officials could come in at any time and shut the facilities down, but they don’t.
In the legislature, there was an effort to pass a bill that would prevent local law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws.
Republicans have favored bills that promote Second Amendment rights and prevent federal guns laws from applying to Missouri. Three bills were filed in February by Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, and Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, that would have made all federal laws that “infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed” by the Second Amendment invalid.
Taylor’s “Second Amendment Preservation Act” was passed through committee on March 10, not long before a long legislative shutdown because of COVID-19. Similar bills were proposed in 2013 and 2014.
McCreery said she tried to propose an amendment to the bill that would protect survivors of relationship violence or domestic violence.
“This bill, as written, would say that local and state law enforcement cannot recognize federal law, and the only place we have protection for domestic violence victims is in federal law,” McCreery said.
McCreery’s amendment wasn’t passed, and Taylor said he didn’t think it fit the description of the bill. He also said he believes guns should only be taken away when a felony has been committed, and doesn’t believe SB 656 created a loophole.
Taylor, while rejecting McCreery’s amendment, said he would be willing to work with her further on the issue, but in a “responsible way.”
“If we say this misdemeanor, what misdemeanor is next? What else are we going to say is a reason why you should lose your Second Amendment rights?” Taylor asked. “And I just don’t think that’s the road that we want to go down.”
Lawmakers like Mitten have an idea why none of the bills have gained traction in the past four years.
“I think that there is a group of folks that seem to believe that any regulation about Second Amendment rights is somehow unconstitutional,” Mitten said.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Columbia Missourian.