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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Missouri Voters Approved Amendment 5 -- But It Took Jeffry Smith to Test Its Limits

Posted By on Wed, Jul 1, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Jeffry Smith: armed, but, he says, not at all dangerous. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
  • Jeffry Smith: armed, but, he says, not at all dangerous.

It's just another day at the Saint Louis Zoo, a Saturday in June, and the air is thick with humidity, sweat and sunscreen. Children drag parents along winding pathways to see the new polar bear, to get another soda, to find a bathroom, to have their faces painted like tigers. But something is amiss outside the zoo's south entrance.

There, five police officers stand guard near the turnstiles. Just down the sidewalk a dozen people — nearly all women — wave signs reading "Animals not Ammo" and "Gun-Free Zone." The protesters stare daggers toward Jeffry Smith, a towering, pot-bellied bear of a man stuffed into a pink polo shirt and white shorts. He wears a maroon visor cap stenciled with the name of a Florida country club. He also wears a pistol holster on his waist, but it's empty. It looks like a chunky cell-phone case sold at a mall kiosk.

Smith, 56, has stationed himself in a patch of shade beneath a pedestrian bridge near the entrance, a slightly more comfortable spot to field questions from the gaggle of reporters on scene. He's surrounded by cameras and microphones.

"So, it's my understanding that you're from Cincinnati," begins a FOX 2 reporter. "Why come all the way here to Missouri to make this statement?"

Smith, who at six-foot-nine looms over the man, grumbles back, "I didn't."

He continues: "I came to Missouri to engage in some personal private business. This, being here today, is because a friend of mine had an incident with the zoo, and I offered to help him out with the circumstance."

The reporter attempts a followup question but it gets buried beneath Smith's deep voice, which has a droning, measured quality that smothers anything in its path.

"The other thing I want to make clear," Smith continues, "and it's something other media have misstated, is that this walk was never going to involve long arms, and by that I mean rifles and shotguns."

This is Smith's usual demeanor with the media — constantly clarifying, framing and fact-checking. But beneath the unflappable exterior is a man realizing that he has lost control of his own creation.

A gun-rights activist, Smith spent weeks stirring outrage over the zoo's ban on firearms, which he considers illegal under the sweepingly permissive gun laws Missouri voters enacted in 2014.

With that legal backing, Smith had hoped to stage an armed protest walk through the zoo featuring himself and Sam Peyton, a fellow activist who claims zoo security guards threatened him in May for sporting an empty pistol holster. The plan was for Smith and Peyton to enter the zoo openly carrying pistols.

But now the plan is gone, blown away by a temporary court order that bars anyone from entering the zoo while packing heat. With the legal question still up in the air, and unwilling to risk certain arrest, Smith and Peyton decided they would enter the zoo while wearing empty holsters, a symbolic challenge to the zoo's "authoritarianism," Smith says.

Now Peyton is 30 minutes late and not answering Smith's calls or texts. That leaves Smith facing the media circus. But he's not alone: Two men, a guy and his father-in-law, show up to support the protest. Unlike Smith, however, they've brought their pistols.

The younger man, Bryan Lewis, is quickly surrounded by photographers clicking shots of him and his firearm. Lewis faces off against a middle-age man wearing black bandana and filming on a smartphone.

"You're a pussy," the man spits at Lewis. "What are you gonna do with the gun, man?"

"Be an American!" Lewis retorts. As the clock ticks past 2 p.m. — and with Peyton still MIA — Smith declares that he wants to try to talk with the counter-protesters from the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the national organization he offhandedly refers to as "the lying mommies."

"I would love to engage in dialogue with some people," he says as he lumbers over. "To me, someone who holds a sign up is not someone who wishes to engage in dialogue. But I'm going to do it anyway. I bet you the reaction, if I walk over there, I bet it will either be 'no' or pretty hate-filled."

A protester outside the St. Louis Zoo - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
  • A protester outside the St. Louis Zoo

As Smith predicts, the Moms Demand Action members are unwilling to chat. They see Smith as a fanatic, a habitual provocateur who seems to have nothing better to do than come to Missouri and wave his gun around.

"Would anyone like to engage in dialogue?" Smith asks a woman holding sign made of orange construction paper. It bears a message in purple marker: "Zoos are for Animals, Not Guns."

"My sign speaks for me," the woman says.

"No, we just want guns out of our zoo," another replies.

Smith walks back to his shaded spot. A self-satisfied smile flashes across his clean-shaven face.

"My experience is they have a mindset, and you're not going to shed any light into the deep dark recesses of someone's mind like that," he says. "I have no expectations of converting someone who dislikes or hates guns into someone who likes them."

Rather, Smith believes he has a much higher calling: to force Missouri's public officials to confront the reality of the state's new gun laws.

Amendment 5, which voters approved in August 2014, enshrines an "unalienable" right to "keep and bear arms" in the Missouri constitution. The amendment's provisions appear to be so powerful and wide-ranging that no one — not Smith, not prosecutors, not even the state legislator who sponsored the ballot measure — can say for sure what its limits are, or if indeed there are any.

The zoo, Smith argues, is opposing the state's progress on gun rights with a mixture of bureaucratic obstinance and legal doublespeak. And that amounts to a rejection of the will of the people.

"I'm trying to advance gun rights, I'm working on the laws being recognized as they are," he says. "I'm hopeful that Missourians look at the legal filings here, look at the position of the zoo and think, 'Oh my goodness gracious, this is what they think of us? Is this is what they think of the law? Really?'"

On July 24, 2014, just two weeks before Missouri voters elected to add Amendment 5 to the state constitution, Republican State Senator Kurt Schaefer addressed a crowd that had gathered for the annual Watermelon Feed in Neosho, a rural city a short drive from both Joplin and the Oklahoma border. He urged them to vote yes on the measure. "If we pass this, we will have the strongest right to keep and bear arms in any state in the United States," Schaefer said, according to the Neosho Daily News. "I look forward to that day when we get this passed."

Schaefer, a Republican based in Columbia, had sponsored the bill that put Amendment 5 on the August ballot, and it was under his watch that the bill's language broadened to include concepts like unalienable rights and "strict scrutiny," a legal term that essentially means the government must meet an extremely high standard to regulate something.

Schaefer explained, "Anything that infringes on that right gets strict scrutiny, which is the highest level of review by a court to hold the government to the tightest restraint, and it is the affirmative obligation of the state of Missouri to uphold that right."

It's the kind of ringing patriotic speech that sounds pretty good in a place like Neosho. But in St. Louis, the people who were aware of Amendment 5 were panicking. Here, people don't just use guns to kill raccoons or shoot clay pigeons. Here, people use guns to kill people, and at an alarming rate.

Next: Prosecutors try to stop the constitutional amendment

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