State legislature moving slow on gun law remedy

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Nearly one month after the Missouri Supreme Court identified a flaw in the state's new concealed weapons law, legislation to fix the problem has made scant progress in the Missouri Legislature.

Despite concerns that a flood of lawsuits could result as county sheriffs begin issuing permits to carry concealed weapons to qualified Missourians, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said there is no urgent need for lawmakers to address the issue this year. Once the legislature returns from its annual spring recess on Monday, it has just seven weeks to finish work on a number of priority issues before its mandatory May 14 adjournment.

"Many sheriffs are issuing permits. County commissions, such as my own, are green-lighting that," Kinder said. "I don't sense a great clamor that when we come back here in the final weeks that that has to be something we get done."

Attorney General Jay Nixon said the legislature's continuing delay on what he sees as a simple statutory fix will lead to a "litigation rodeo" as anti-gun forces try to stop implementation of the law county by county.

'Extremely disappointed'"I am extremely disappointed the General Assembly has decided to leave Missouri sheriffs hanging high and dry," Nixon said.

In its Feb. 26 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional power of the legislature to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons, as it did with a law enacted last fall over Gov. Bob Holden's veto.

However, the court said the law's mechanism for compensating sheriff's departments for processing permit applications violated the Hancock Amendment's ban on the legislature imposing unfunded mandates on local governments.

Because evidence of increased costs was provided for only four counties, including Cape Girardeau County, when a circuit judge heard a challenge to the new law, the Supreme Court exempted only those counties from being required to issue permits.

However, the court left the door open for taxpayers in other counties to raise the unfunded mandate issue in future lawsuits. Such a lawsuit has already been filed in Moniteau County, where the sheriff issued a permit to state Rep. Larry Crawford, R-California and sponsor of the conceal and carry law. St. Louis County, whose voters' strong opposition to concealed weapons helped deliver the statewide defeat of a 1999 ballot measure on the issue, plans a lawsuit seeking an exemption from issuing permits.

Fee set by law

The law allows sheriffs to impose a fee of up to $100 for processing permit applications but says revenue collected may only be used by sheriffs for equipment and training. Missourians age 23 and older who meet certain qualifications are eligible for a permit.

Bills filed in both legislative chambers would allow the fees to be used to cover any costs associated with the permitting process, disposing of the Hancock issue.

A Senate committee last week held a hearing on the version sponsored by state Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, but it took no action. The House version, sponsored by Crawford, has yet to be assigned to a committee.

Although the court said Cape Girardeau County didn't have to issue permits, Sheriff John Jordan began processing applications last week after the county commission authorized the action.

While not precluding the county from voluntarily accepting an unfunded mandate, the court specifically stated that it wasn't offering an opinion on whether the constitution allowed the county to do so. Since any taxpayer has legal standing to raise a Hancock claim, a lawsuit against the county is possible, the commission's endorsement of conceal and carry not withstanding.

The bills are SB 1335 and HB 1565.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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