Limitations numerous in gun law

Sunday, October 12, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- It took years of effort and acrimonious political debate for Missouri to join the majority of states that allow residents to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.

Assuming the new law survives a court challenge, however, permit holders could encounter strict limits on where they can legally possess a hidden firearm.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, conceded the restrictions, adopted through political compromise, could prove cumbersome in some instances. But he said the freedom the law grants to all Missourians age 21 and over to conceal weapons in their vehicles -- no permit necessary -- is an important protection.

"That is probably one of the best things," Jetton said. "People when they are traveling want to protect themselves."

The law was to take effect Saturday, but a St. Louis circuit court judge issued an order Friday temporarily blocking the law. A group of conceal-carry opponents sought the order pending a Missouri Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the law.

If the law stands, residents at least 23 years of age who pass a training course will be able to apply with their local sheriff for a conceal-carry permit. Applicants must pay a $100 fee and pass a background check to receive the three-year permits.

Provisions of the law limiting where guns can be taken contributed to the Republican-led Missouri Legislature enacting it last month over Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's veto. A Republican senator from suburban St. Louis who had initially voted against the measure cited the tight language when he switched his vote to provide the needed two-thirds Senate majority to override the governor.

The conceal-carry restrictions don't apply to law enforcement officers.

Holden issued an emergency administrative rule last week attempting to place additional limits on where weapons can be carried beyond those set forth in the law. Holden's order would ban concealed weapons in virtually all buildings owned or leased by the state.

Although the law appears to place such a policy decision in the hands of the legislature, Holden's attorney said a pre-existing state law authorizes the governor's action.

Blunt response Tuesday

Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican, is responsible for reviewing proposed administrative rules. A spokesman said a determination on whether Holden's directive is legal would likely be made Tuesday.

Under the new law, there are three basic categories of places in regard to conceal and carry:

Those where firearms are banned under all circumstances.

Those where weapons are generally prohibited but may be allowed with official permission.

Those where guns are presumed allowed unless the property owner posts rules to the contrary.

Weapons are absolutely banned in courthouses, airports, amusement parks, sports arenas with at least 5,000 seats, hospitals and prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities.

The public is prohibited from carrying weapons into meetings of governmental bodies, such as city councils or the state legislature. However, members of those bodies who hold permits may bring weapons to meetings.

Firearms are also outlawed in bars, but the restriction doesn't apply to establishments that seat 50 or fewer people and derive at least 51 percent of their gross income from food. Owners of bars covered by the ban may carry weapons.

Weapons are also off limits within 25 feet of a polling place on Election Day.

The general prohibition on concealed weapons applies to law enforcement offices, universities and elementary and secondary schools, day-care centers, casinos and churches. However, permit holders may carry in such places with the consent of the appropriate official.

Concealed firearms are presumed allowed in all other places, including government buildings where there is no specific prohibition in statute, and on private property, including businesses. But the law authorizes local governments to enact ordinances banning weapons in buildings under their control, and private property owners may post signs declaring their premises gun-free zones.

Several local governments in Southeast Missouri are considering gun bans. The Scott and Mississippi county commissions are among those that have already adopted restrictions.

The response to the new law from business owners could provide a clearer view of the scope of locations where concealed weapons are permitted.

Missouri Chamber of Commerce spokesman Michael Grote said that based on the inquiries the chamber has received concerning the law, no consensus has emerged on whether a large number of businesses intend to ban weapons at their establishments.

Even where prohibitions are imposed, possession of a concealed weapon by a licensed person isn't in itself a crime.

If a permit holder is discovered with a hidden weapon where restrictions are in place, they can be asked to leave. Only refusal to do so can result in a citation.

A first offense is punishable by a $100 fine. A second offense within six months could lead to a $200 fine and of one-year suspension of the violator's permit. A third offense within a year could yield a $500 fine, with conceal-carry privileges revoked for three years.

Jim Vermeersch, director of the Missouri Sheriff's Association, said law enforcement officials aren't anticipating many violations, although it is difficult to predict at this early stage.

"I would suspect individuals who are on premises with concealed weapons and are instructed to leave would leave," Vermeersch said.

The law also says that it isn't a crime to keep a firearm stowed in a vehicle at locations with weapons bans. Nevertheless, many school districts are considering enacting policies making it clear that they don't want guns anywhere on school grounds.

Missouri School Boards Association spokesman Brent Ghan said that while the law appears to allow concealed weapons in vehicles in school parking lots, there may be nothing to prevent districts from taking preventative action.

"We think boards still have the authority to ban guns on their property," Ghan said.

But he said that position could be subject to court scrutiny.

"There are going to be a lot of court challenges to this law over time," Ghan said.

During a visit last week to a Kansas City elementary school, Holden called on lawmakers to pass a "gun-free schools act" next year to clear up any ambiguity. The governor suggested bringing a weapon into a school facility be made a felony punishable by up to four years in prison.

Jetton said such legislation isn't needed.

"You already can't bring guns into a school," Jetton said. "I think we've got the law pretty restrictive as it is."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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