'Good idea' or 'useless'? Experts review legislators' plans to stop gun violence
JEFFERSON CITY — This much is clear about gun violence in Missouri: it’s a problem, and politicians are going to have to talk about it this session.
The state's own records show gun-related deaths jumped 56.4 percent from 2008-2018, and a bloody summer in St. Louis that saw more than a dozen children killed by gunfire seemed to bring everything into focus this fall.
Democratic legislators spent the duration of a special session on vehicle taxes pleading for action.
Republicans, who in recent years have loosened restrictions on guns, announced they would study potential solutions to the violence, which also claimed dozens of victims in Kansas City and did enough damage in Springfield and Columbia to make police worry about the number of people being shot.
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican himself, started meeting with the mayors of those cities. In November, they announced three ideas to address the issue, including changes to state law on gun access for youths, domestic abusers and violent offenders.
But as legislators begin the 2020 legislative session this week, two things remain unclear: Can any of it pass? And will any of it help?
The answer to the first question is the same for many ideas at the beginning of the session: Maybe, maybe not.
To answer the second question, the News-Leader ran proposals by two gun violence experts: Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who favors expansive gun control, and Gary Kleck, a professor emeritus at Florida State University known for a more libertarian view.
Here’s a rundown of those proposals and what Rosenfeld and Kleck said about each.
‘Common sense': What the governor and the mayors say will help
First up: what’s likely the best hope for a bipartisan deal to combat gun violence in 2020.
After a meeting in November, the mayors, including two elected as Democrats, and Parson, a Republican and former sheriff, outlined a three-point plan to:
- Strengthen witness protection services;
- Increase access to mental health services, and
- Propose a new law to keep children, domestic abusers and violent offenders from getting their hands on firearms.
In an interview, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said the key with witness protection is for the state to boost funding from roughly $10,000 per year to about $1 million.
The thinking there is the boost would make it more likely that witnesses come forward to help police solve violent crimes, many of which have gone unsolved in St. Louis and Kansas City in recent years.
McClure said the plan for mental health services is to watch and see how things go at a new Burrell Behavioral Health center designed to give Springfield first responders a place to bring people in crisis for intervention and treatment 24/7. If it works, McClure said, the state could help pay to replicate the idea in other cities.
As for the proposed new law, McClure said, the idea is to bring federal rules that restrict access to guns for kids, violent offenders and domestic abusers onto state books so local prosecutors can enforce violations and put offenders into local intervention programs.
In his November announcement, Parson called the ideas “common sense,” according to the Kansas City Star.
The verdict: Mostly good ideas
Neither expert could find much wrong with strengthening witness protection.
Kleck, the FSU professor, warned the state can't arrest its way to safety, though. He said that's because the government has a limited amount of space in its jails and prisons.
“For every one you put in jail, you have to let another out,” Kleck said. “This is not going to change the number of bad guys on the street. The police have way more capacity to arrest criminals than the prison system can absorb.”
Kleck said the idea only works if law enforcement uses tips to make enough arrests that would-be violent criminals both take notice and reconsider their actions, which can be a high bar to clear.
Rosenfeld, the UMSL professor, was optimistic about the nascent mental health services idea.
He said there’s a “strong strain of research” showing that bringing people at high risk for violence into meetings with the police and mental health providers is a strategy that’s reduced violence elsewhere.
“I’ll be very interested in the results of that,” he said.
Kleck and Rosenfeld also supported the idea of a new law reinforcing prohibitions on guns for people under the age of 18 as well as domestic and violent offenders, with caveats.
Kleck said that he’d advocated the same thing 25 years ago, but warned, “its impact depends entirely on how much they enforce it.”
Rosenfeld said he would go further and require licensing of firearms and permits to carry them for everyone else.
What Republicans say will help
Republicans who run the legislative branch are approaching things a little differently.
Leaders in both chambers have voiced skepticism that new restrictions on firearms would help. House leaders like House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, have also vowed to oppose anything they believe violates the Second Amendment.
It’s unclear whether they see the governor's proposal in that negative light, but generally, they’re focused on ideas that would put more police on the street, give them additional tools and strengthen punishments for those they catch.
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said in an interview last month he hoped to help St. Louis with a bill allowing it to hire police officers who live outside the city.
He acknowledged it was just “one potential element” of an overall fix, but said something had to be done with the department short more than 100 officers.
“150 more police officers would have an impact on the crime that’s happening,” Schatz said.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, filed a bill in the same vein offering grants to hire more police in midsize cities, including his hometown.
Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, one of a group of lawmakers Speaker Haahr asked to study violent crime solutions this fall, wants to free up existing officers’ time, too.
One way, he said, would be to pass a bill he filed allowing law enforcement more discretion in whether they have to arrest someone on a misdemeanor traffic violation.
If an officer pulls a woman over who failed to appear for a court hearing, but she’s got a baby in the back and they’re 40 miles from the county jail, the officer shouldn’t have to arrest her for failure to appear, Roberts said.
“There are better uses of our time than serving traffic warrants that make the officer look unreasonable,” he said.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, wants to amp up the punishment for some violent criminals and make it sure it sticks for others.
One bill he filed would increase the minimum sentences for armed criminal action.
Another would require anyone convicted of second-degree murder to serve prison time, preventing judges from sentencing those convicted to probation, which he said lets offenders off the hook who are highly likely to commit another crime.
“We need to be getting tougher on the 0.1 percent of Missourians who would use guns to commit violence,” Luetkemeyer said.
The verdict: Mixed to ‘useless’
The experts had mixed responses to those ideas.
Neither was enthusiastic about ratcheting up punishments or ensuring prison time rather than probation, and Kleck was emphatically against the idea.
“Useless,” Kleck said. “That’s worthless.”
Kleck was also skeptical that just having more police on the street, even if they could focus more on violent crime, would make a difference.
He said that approach had a similar limitation to paying more for witness protection.
“My research shows that the number of police doesn’t affect perceptions of the risk of getting caught,” he said.
Rosenfeld was much more charitable. He said if more police were deployed in large numbers to small areas where a lot of violent crime happens, that could help.
“It’s not just hiring, it’s what they’re doing once they’re out on patrol,” he said. “The best research is concentrate officers in those small areas of the city where gun violence is at very high levels.”
What Democrats say will help
Missouri Democrats have their own plans for gun violence, of course.
And while their superminority status makes passing their ideas unlikely, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said they would file and advocate for them all the same.
She wasn't kidding. More than a dozen Democratic bills dealing with all sorts of firearms issues have been filed so far, including several with familiar names.
Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, filed a "red-flag" bill, which would allow law enforcement or family members to ask courts to temporarily bar someone posing a threat to themselves or others from buying or keeping firearms.
A number of other states have similar laws on the books with an eye toward getting guns away from people who might use them to hurt others or themselves.
Denver police invoked a similar law for the first time last week to allow them to keep guns confiscated from a man accused of beating his wife, according to the Denver Post.
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, filed another bill requiring background checks for all gun sales to go through federally licensed dealers and background checks — the "universal" standard often discussed at the national level.
“Background checks are a common sense way to help to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals,” Schupp said in a news release. “Unfortunately, under Missouri’s current gun laws, criminals can avoid a background check by purchasing a firearm online or at a gun show."
Schupp also pointed out that the state used to require checks on all transfers of handguns, and John Hopkins researchers found Missouri’s gun homicide rate increased 25 percent in the five years after Republicans repealed the requirement.
Rep. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis, went even further, filing a bill that would require most of the general public to get a concealed carry permit to open or concealed carry a functional firearm in his city.
That would effectively reverse multiple laws Republicans have passed in recent years, at least in St. Louis.
The verdicts: Limited enthusiasm and skepticism
Rosenfeld, the UMSL professor, liked the Democrats' ideas but didn't know to what degree they would help.
He said current research is beginning to suggest that red-flag laws like Razer's could cut into domestic homicides, but also pointed out that most murders are street crimes committed by young men with criminal records and who carry firearms illegally already.
Rosenfeld agreed with Schupp that people should have a background check before buying a gun and advocated to further require gun buyers to have a license, permit and insurance to make it as difficult as possible for anyone looking to commit violent crime.
He said it remains an open question as to how that approach would affect street crime.
People would still get firearms illegally, he conceded, but heavier regulation could push the street price up, which could reduce the number sold and the number on the street.
He also liked Roberts' idea of regulating guns on a city-by-city basis.
"The firearm situation in a city like St. Louis is not the situation elsewhere in Missouri," he said.
Kleck was far more skeptical. He said red-flag laws are pretty new, so there's not enough research for him to say whether they work at this point. He said it was too soon to say whether no-permit access to guns is causing problems, too.
He said Schupp's bill was a good idea, though, despite his concern that people wouldn't comply with the law.
"In the states that have adopted that, there isn't much compliance with it," he said. "But there is some compliance with it, and some bad guys will try to buy a gun and get screened out and some of them will decline to get a gun at all.
"You take what you can get."