JEFFERSON CITY — A judge heard arguments Thursday on whether a new Missouri gun law — defended by state leaders and under fire from the federal government — was constitutional.
The Second Amendment Preservation Act, passed by the state legislature in May and signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson, seeks to nullify certain federal gun laws and penalize state and local police for enforcing those laws. The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have sued the state over the act, which is set to take effect Aug. 28.
Attorneys from those regions asked Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green on Thursday to block the law from taking effect, arguing that its language has caused uncertainty among law enforcement — chiefly the $50,000 fines that could be charged to departments if officers enforce certain federal laws.
“We’re not sure what it means, we’re not sure which federal statutes and laws we’re forbidden to enforce,” said Judge Robert Dierker, who serves on the St. Louis City circuit court and represented the city in the case. “They have imposed on local governments a very, very substantial punitive penalty if the local governments employ anyone who has or will enforce these laws.”
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Heidi Lynn Leopold, another attorney representing the city and county, said they had already seen two lawsuits relating to the law — and after it goes into effect, they expect “a landslide more.”
“We have officers telling us, ‘why would I be a police officer when I could be on the hook for $50,000? Do I need to disband my department because 70 percent of my officers have participated (in these task forces)?'” Leopold said.
Solicitor General John Sauer, representing the state, cited several statements made by President Joe Biden during his candidacy advocating for gun control, and argued that the law was “anticipatory” for any new federal measures that infringed on gun rights. Sauer said the city and county’s arguments indicated they didn’t want clarity on the specifics of the law, but rather wanted it gone altogether.
“They haven’t asked this court to clarify the meaning of this statute,” Sauer said. “They’ve just gone for the jugular, arguing that the entire statute is invalid.”
He also said the plaintiffs’ argument never identified a “single provision of federal law they believe is nullified,” and that the new Missouri law never says federal agents themselves can’t come into Missouri and enforce those laws.
Green asked Sauer whether he knew of any other state laws in which employers could face civil fines in the same way the Missouri law imposes. Sauer said he did not, but argued there are federal statutes that are similar.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in court documents filed Wednesday, also requested that Green block the law — calling it a “legally invalid” statute that “undermines law enforcement activities in Missouri.” After the law was signed, the department writes, several police agencies around the state have pulled out of a national program that tracks gun crimes and barred federal agents from accessing evidence or data.
“In the few weeks since HB85 become law, significant damage to federal law enforcement operations has already occurred,” wrote Brian Boynton, the department’s acting assistant attorney general for civil cases, and several other DOJ officials. “This damage will only intensify if the law’s penalty provisions are allowed to go into effect on Aug. 28, as the state intends.”
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Testimony from Frederic Winston, an ATF agent based in Kansas City, submitted to the court Wednesday detailed how the new law had impacted the agency’s operations. As of Wednesday, Winston writes, 12 of 53 state and local officers in Missouri with federal responsibilities have in some capacity pulled out of ATF task forces dedicated to tracking violent crime and illegal gun use.
Those 12 withdrawals include three from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, four from the Columbia Police Department, two from O’Fallon, two from Sedalia and one from Jackson County. A top ATF official sent a letter to Missouri federal firearm licensees on July 26, outlining guidance on enforcing federal laws that “continue to apply and remain in full effect in Missouri.”
“These state and local officials are critical members of ATF’s law enforcement efforts,” Winston wrote in his affidavit. “It is expected that even more state and local officials will withdraw once the SAPA fully goes into effect … the more officials that withdraw, the greater SAPA’s harms to law enforcement and public safety.”
Winston also wrote he believed the law, once enforced, could cause confusion and concern by nullifying certain federal statutes, and “would appear to allow” some people not allowed to own firearms under U.S. law to do so — including those with a restraining order or misdemeanor domestic violence convictions.
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In June, Boynton sent a letter to Parson and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, telling them the state didn’t have the authority to enforce the newly signed law and requesting clarification on how the statute would be implemented. Parson and Schmitt, who is also running for U.S. Senate, attacked the Biden administration and federal gun control policymaking in their response letter.
“We will fight tooth and nail to defend the right to keep and bear arms … and we will not tolerate any attempt by the federal government to deprive Missourians of this critical civil right,” they wrote in June.
In his arguments Thursday, Sauer said he thought “we’re going to be just down the street when this case ends,” indicating a belief that the issue would be appealed up to the state’s Supreme Court.
Judge Daniel Green said he would likely issue a ruling within the week, setting up a potential decision within days of the Aug. 28 start date.
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at email@example.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.
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