Almost two years since a gunman killed 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., prompting a wave of new state gun laws, residents of Washington and Missouri will vote on government’s role in regulating firearms.
A measure on Missouri’s Aug. 5 primary ballot asks that the right to bear arms -- already enshrined in the state constitution -- be amended with further legal protections. Two opposing measures on the November ballot in Washington state seek to expand or limit background checks for gun sales.
The questions before voters in the two states embody the bifurcated nature of American gun policy today. While some states pursue an agenda that lets people carry firearms in more places and purchase guns faster with fewer hurdles in the screening process, others have sought to limit access to firearms, especially rapid-fire rifles and magazines with more than 10 bullets.
The proposed change in Missouri would take the existing state constitutional right to keep and bear arms and extend it to ammunition and “accessories typical to the normal function of such arms.”
The amendment also characterizes the rights guaranteed in the state constitution as “unalienable” and requires that any restrictions placed on these rights to be subject to strict legal scrutiny. In practical terms, that means that if the legislature or a city council tried to pass a gun regulation in the future, it would have to demonstrate a compelling reason for the restriction and narrowly tailor the restriction to meet that goal.
The measure also gives a higher level of legal protection to those wearing concealed firearms. A Missouri statute already allows gun owners to obtain a permit for carrying concealed firearms, but the amendment strikes a sentence in the existing constitution that implies the right to carry concealed firearms is a limited right.
The ballot measure makes clear that the extra level of legal protections for gun owners would not extend to convicted felons and those adjudicated by a court to be dangerous to themselves or others "as a result of a mental disorder or mental infirmity."*
To place the amendment on the ballot, Republicans in the state legislature approved the measure 23-8 in the state Senate and 122-31 in the state House. In the public debate leading up to the primary, opponents have included Democrats from Missouri’s urban centers and libertarians who say the amendment might have the unintended consequence of infringing on personal freedoms. Chris Koster, the state attorney general and a Democrat, supports the amendment.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has avoided taking a position on the issue. The governor “has consistently supported the constitutional rights of Missourians to bear arms, as enshrined in the Second Amendment,” wrote Scott Holste, Nixon’s press secretary, in an email. “He also believes, however, that changing the Constitution of our state should be done sparingly, thoughtfully and only when there is a demonstrated need to do so.”
The main sponsor of the amendment, Republican state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, wanted to heighten the protections of gun owners because a Senate investigation discovered that the state’s revenue department had thrice shared a list of permit holders for concealed guns with the U.S. Social Security Administration. The new law would discourage the release of gun owner’s personal information, he told the website PoliticMo.
Nonetheless, the already-strong gun laws in Missouri have critics asking why the state needs an another affirmation of gun rights. Municipalities such as St. Louis and Kansas City have so little power to regulate guns that bans on carrying unconcealed firearms in public are some of the only ordinances that are still allowed -- and the legislature is likely to eliminate that local power in September.
“With the makeup of our state legislature, it’s impossible to pass any kind of legislation that tightens gun regulations,” said state Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, who opposes the measure. Bills that passed in blue states last year as moderate gun-control laws don’t receive serious attention in Missouri, she said. For example, a proposal to expand criminal background checks to all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows and over the Internet, failed to even receive a committee hearing this year.
Not surprisingly, the same basic proposal that was dead on arrival in Missouri's Republican-led legislature received stronger support in Washington state, where Democrats control the state house, the governor’s office and nearly the state senate, too. But even in states with left-leaning politics, most do not require universal background checks. A bill to expand background checks in Washington state died in the House in 2013, ultimately forcing the issue to be decided through the initiative process.
Polling on dueling ballot measures about background checks yielded confusing results in an April poll: A majority of respondents supported both expanded background checks and limits on background checks. A later poll in July found that support had ticked up for expanded background checks and ticked down for limits, though 32 percent still said they supported both measures.
Part of the reason why people might support conflicting measures may be simple confusion on what the measures would do. The wording in the measure that seeks to place limits on a state expansion of background checks first asks for support to “prohibit government agencies from confiscating guns or other firearms from citizens without due process.”
The second part of the question asks for support in banning government “from requiring background checks on firearm recipients unless a uniform national standard is required.” In other words, a yes vote would mean denying the state the ability to have a standard for background checks that is more stringent than federal law.
Currently, the federal government only requires background checks for sales by licensed gun businesses. Those who buy firearms at gun shows or over the Internet in many states are legally allowed to skip background checks. Many guns purchased in these ways are later used to commit crimes. A lack of firm data -- hindered by limits Congress has placed on information gathering by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- makes it impossible to know the exact number of guns used in crimes that were purchased at gun shows or over the Internet. Nonetheless, the “loophole” has become a focal point for gun-control advocates, especially former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Washington voters will decide whether to approve either gun measure Nov. 4.
*CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Missouri's gun ballot language does include information about ammunition and accessories, as well as the exclusion of convicted felons and the mentally ill from the higher level of legal protections.