JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill to give more options for prosecuting people for carjackings, a move praised by some as a way to combat an uptick in violent crime and criticized by others as too expansive and harsh.
The legislation follows a particularly bloody 2019 marked by an increase in crime and homicides in the state's largest cities, which put pressure on elected officials to take action.
While Democratic lawmakers called for restrictions on gun use, Republicans in control of the state House and Senate pushed for ramping up penalties for crimes including carjackings.
There's currently no specific carjacking statute under Missouri law. Rep. David Gregory, a suburban St. Louis Republican, said prosecutors now charge suspects with related crimes like robbery or stealing.
Gregory's bill, which received initial approval in the House in a voice vote, would create a carjacking law.
"This really ups the ante," Gregory said on the House floor. "It makes sure that we send a clear message from the Legislature and out to the state that we are fighting carjacking and it is something that we are going to stop."
Gregory's bill would make carjacking a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison. The crime would be punishable by 10 to 30 years or life in prison if the carjacker causes serious injury, is armed with a real or fake weapon, or takes a vehicle with a child in it.
Some lawmakers raised concerns that the bill goes too far. Democratic St. Louis Rep. Tommie Pierson Jr. said he's worried that enacting the policy could mean that people present during carjackings who don't actively participate face the same penalties as those who commit the crime.
"I want us to be smart on crime, not just to throw everybody who just happened to be around in the same boat and just give them all 30 years," he said.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican who leads a criminal justice committee, tried to amend the bill to spare those who use a fake weapon — such as a squirt gun — from the harsher penalties.
"We're just trying to give them an incentive not to bring a real weapon to that offense," he said.
Lawmakers killed the amendment.
The measure needs another vote of approval to move to the state Senate.