Concealed weapons bill renews gun debates

Sunday, June 15, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Ever since the Missouri Legislature approved a bill last month that would give state residents the right to carry concealed firearms, Vince Bowman has noticed excitement about the prospect among patrons at Shooters Gun Shop in Cape Girardeau.

To Bowman, a store employee, there is little doubt that allowing law-abiding people the opportunity to protect themselves would have a positive effect.

"The simple fact is if it is legal, crime drops," Bowman said. "The criminal doesn't know who is carrying and who is not. It creates doubt."

Conceal and carry opponents, however, disagree with that view and say such laws could actually increase violence.

Todd Elkins, a St. Joseph minister and chairman of the interfaith lobbying group Missouri Impact, said the bill doesn't foster community unity or fight crime, but instead creates an atmosphere of fear. He wonders whether state lawmakers are serious about ending violence in Missouri, or would they rather please special interests.

It is no coincidence, Elkins said, that the areas of Missouri with the highest crimes rates are those most opposed to concealed weapons.

Although the measure won strong legislative approval, Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, has vowed to veto it.

Mary Still, Holden's spokeswoman, didn't respond to repeated requests for comment on the governor's position or when he might issue a veto.

The governor must act on the measure by no later than July 14 or it will automatically become law.

Waiting on a law

Although 45 states now have some form of the conceal and carry law, the debate has raged in Missouri for more than a decade.

Proponents came close to victory in a April 1999 referendum on the issue that passed all but 10 of Missouri's 114 counties while failing in St. Louis city. However, substantial urban resistance resulted in the proposal's narrow defeat with 51.7 percent of voters statewide in opposition.

Since that election the House of Representatives has approved a version of the bill almost annually, but the effort has always lost momentum in the Senate.

This year was different as Senate supporters finally overcame the opposition, invoking a rarely used chamber rule to shut down a filibuster and force a vote.

While Republicans who control the legislature are strongly in favor of concealed weapons, the issue isn't a partisan one as most rural Democrats are also in support. All 16 Southeast Missouri lawmakers, including four Democrats, voted for the bill this year. During the 1999 vote, 66.4 percent of voters in 19 area counties favored conceal and carry.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, predicts a severe electoral backlash in rural Missouri should Holden follow through on his veto threat.

"I think it is going to finish the Democratic Party in 90 to 100 counties across the state that are weary of leaders of the once-dominant party refusing to trust them with a right most citizens of other states already enjoy," Kinder said.

Lawmakers will likely attempt to override the governor during their annual veto session in September. Two-thirds majorities are needed in both chambers -- 109 votes in the House and 23 in the Senate -- for such an effort to prevail.

Success in the House is almost a foregone conclusion as the bill passed 111-43. Counting some absent representatives who had been supporters during an earlier vote, there could be as many as 115 votes for an override.

The situation in the Senate, however, is far from certain. Although the chamber approved the bill 23-9, one of the yes votes came from Minority Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia. Jacob is staunchly against the proposal and voted in the affirmative only so he could be in a position under Senate rules to derail it later had circumstances given him the opportunity.

Kinder says Majority Floor Leader Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, could provide a possible swing vote. Gibbons was the lone Republican to oppose the bill during last month's vote. However, Kinder acknowledges supporters could lose one of the three Democrats, excluding Jacob, who previously voted in favor.

The rules

Under the legislation, residents would apply with their local sheriff for concealed weapons certification. Applicants must be U.S. citizens who are at least 23 years old, have completed an acceptable training course and have been Missouri residents for a minimum of six months. The residency requirement would be waived for military personnel stationed in the state.

Applicants must also agree to be fingerprinted and submit to a criminal background check.

Mandatory disqualification from certification would result for a variety of reasons, including:

Any felony conviction, a conviction for a violent misdemeanor or more than one conviction for misdemeanor driving while intoxicated or drug possession.

Being a fugitive from justice.

Dishonorable discharge from the military.

Mental incompetence.

Being the subject of a restraining order.

With the certification from their sheriff, applicants would then be eligible to obtain a conceal-and-carry endorsement on their driver's license that would be valid for three years.

While many of his counterparts in other counties oppose the legislation, Mississippi County Sheriff Larry Turley, a Democrat, doesn't anticipate it causing any problems. Criminals will carry weapons without regard to the law, he said.

Nor does Turley believe the additional administrative duty of processing conceal-and-carry applications will prove unduly burdensome for his department.

He also feels that the nonrefundable application fees of $100 for an initial certification and $50 per renewal, which sheriffs' departments keep for their own use, should be sufficient to cover added administrative expenses.

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