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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

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Smith outside the St. Louis Zoo in early June. A judge's temporary order has barred him from bringing a gun inside its borders. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
  • Smith outside the St. Louis Zoo in early June. A judge's temporary order has barred him from bringing a gun inside its borders.

In 2015, for example, according to data published by the Circuit Attorney's Office, bullets have so far ended the lives of 83 people, a startling rise that lit a fire under law-enforcement officials. This May, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce launched a website, stlouisguncrime.com, to track the city's gun-related deaths and publicize stories from victims and perpetrators alike.

Not surprisingly, Joyce was among loudest opponents to Amendment 5 in the run-up to the August 5 election. Along with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson, she filed a lawsuit to strip the proposed amendment from the election ballot, arguing that its official description was misleading to voters.

Voters were being asked this question: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to include a declaration that the right to keep and bear arms is a unalienable right and that the state government is obligated to uphold that right?"

"It doesn't point out to voters the seriousness of this amendment and how it's going to elevate gun laws to a status that is almost beyond any right we have as citizens," Burt Newman, one of the lawyers fighting the ballot language, said in a June 2014 interview. "It doesn't tell voters that 140 years of law is going to be wiped out."

Another objection to Amendment 5 was the addition of the term "strict scrutiny," which critics argued wasn't explained on the ballot.

That verbiage hadn't been part of Schaefer's initial bill. The addition came courtesy of Ron Calzone and Dave Roland, both well-known political activists in Jefferson City.

"There were several people, citizens, activists and legislators alike, who recognized that we needed to speak to the court in the court's own language," says Calzone, who co-directs Missouri First, a nonprofit that promotes limited government. "I was trying to help craft the language in a way that the court would not be able to misunderstand at all."

Roland, an attorney and co-director of the Freedom Center of Missouri, says that adding the legal armor of strict scrutiny meant placing gun rights on the highest pedestal.

"Depending on how the courts assess it," he says, "it should one of the strongest, if not the strongest, defenses of the right to bear arms in the country."

As the August 5 election day neared, critics cried that Amendment 5 was so ambiguously written that convicted felons would soon find themselves afforded the rights of gun ownership. Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight, speaking to the Columbia Daily Tribune, pointed to the proposed line that says "nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the general assembly from enacting general laws which limit the rights of convicted violent felons" from possessing firearms. While that may sound reasonable to a layman, Missouri statutes actually don't include a definition for a "violent felony," only a "dangerous felony."

That's no small distinction.

"That creates a whole new set of uncertainty," Baker said. "A convicted drug dealer will not meet that definition."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch blasted the amendment in a withering editorial, blaming the state's Republican lawmakers for dragging Missouri on an "NRA-inspired gun craze" that had already included a failed bid to nullify federal gun regulations.

"Now, to win favor with a small sliver of their voting base who won't rest until the Second Amendment is interpreted to mean that every house must have a gun, and preferably several guns of whatever size, shape and killing power is available, they want voters to change Missouri's completely appropriate and very strong constitutional gun protections," the paper's editorial board wrote.

But it wasn't just Republicans. Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, was also a high-profile supporter.

In fact, the only serious contribution to the anti-Amendment 5 campaign came from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety, a national group that supports gun regulation.

But while the organization donated $134,000 to the No on Amendment 5 committee, St. Louis Public Radio (90.7 FM) reported that the cash was spent on hiring attorneys to keep the measure off the ballot, not on awareness campaigns.

The no group still outspent the gun advocates. It says something about the popularity of gun rights in Missouri that the campaign supporting Amendment 5 drew virtually no contributions from outside lobbying groups.

It didn't need them.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled it was too late to intervene in the ballot language. On Election Day, 60 percent of Missourians voted "yes" on Amendment 5 — enough to add its language to the state's constitution.

When Jeffry Smith introduced himself to St. Louis, he did so while sporting a wide white cowboy hat and a bullpup assault rifle slung across his chest.

It was an unseasonably warm October afternoon, less than two months after Amendment 5 was voted into the Missouri constitution, and Smith and about 50 armed supporters strolled through St. Louis' whimsically chic urban park, Citygarden, on their way to the Gateway Arch.

The "walk," as Smith insisted on calling it, took the group past a larger crowd of counterprotesters, many drawn from a nearby conference hosted by Amnesty International. The counterprotesters traced lumpy chalk outlines of bodies on the pavement.

A woman wearing a camouflage-printed T-shirt (and carrying an enormous handgun) pushed a stroller and raised a sign reading "SB 656 Right to Open Carry," a reference to the 2014 bill that mandated the right to openly carry a gun to any Missourian who'd been granted a concealed-carry permit.

Police officers in yellow vests watched the walk from a distance. From the stroller, the woman's toddler-aged daughter twisted in her seat to watch a cameraman from a local news station rush by.

Weeks before, spurred by what he saw as St. Louis' unwillingness to acknowledge the new reality following to the passage of Amendment 5 and SB 656, Smith had begun emailing the city's attorneys and police department. He requested information on how open carry would be handled in public spaces in the city's downtown.

Next: Smith upsets St. Louis city leaders



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