State lawmakers gathering for their regular session starting Wednesday could consider making it harder for domestic abusers to possess firearms — though recent history indicates efforts to tighten access will be an uphill battle.
Instead of implementing regulations, the GOP-controlled Legislature has loosened the state’s gun laws, capped in 2016 by an omnibus gun bill Republicans approved over a veto from then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
Among the law’s provisions is one that allows Missourians to conceal and carry firearms without a permit. Without the permitting process, opponents feared the measure would put guns into the hands of those denied permits in the past, such as domestic abusers.
To push back, a group of lawmakers and advocates, led by a Republican, last year shepherded legislation to forbid those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or those subject to a protective order from possessing a firearm. The change would align Missouri law with federal statutes; Congress approved similar language in 1996.
The efforts come as Missouri was recently named one of the deadliest states in terms of women killed by men, according to a September report from the Violence Police Center. Using 2015 FBI data, the group found that there were 47 women killed by men in single victim/single offender cases.
Missouri tied for 10th on the nonprofit’s list, with a rate of 1.52 women per 100,000 killed by men in 2015 in single victim/single offender scenarios. That outpaced the national rate of 1.12 women per 100,000, according to the report.
When authorities identified what relationship the victim had to her killer, the killer knew the victim 95 percent of the time. When investigators determined a murder weapon, it was a firearm 73 percent of the time.
“We’re not tenth in population, we’re not tenth in land mass, we’re not tenth in wealth — we’re not tenth in anything except the number of women killed by their male partners,” said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Action in the Capitol
Rep. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, sponsored the bill last year that would have banned firearm possession to domestic violence offenders and protective order respondents.
Lichtenegger had personal motivations for pushing the measure.
“My mother was abused. Had my father had a gun, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” she said. Lichtenegger describes herself as a supporter of the Second Amendment, though “if gun owners were truthful with themselves, the people we don’t want to have guns are people like abusers.”
Lichtenegger withdrew her bill in February, reintroducing a different version that would give gun owners a 24-hour window to continue possessing firearms after being served with a court order.
The move drew criticism from Coble, who said that window can be a deadly one. Lichtenegger said at an April hearing for her revised bill that she wrote in the 24-hour window at the behest of the National Rifle Association.
“That’s what NRA wanted,” Lichtenegger said.
Whitney O’Daniel, a Capitol lobbyist for the gun-rights group, declined to comment on the NRA’s legislative efforts. He referred a reporter to the group’s Washington, D.C.-area headquarters, but spokespeople did not respond to questions by deadline.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, who co-sponsored Lichtenegger’s second attempt, said he would be reluctant to restrict a person’s right to carry, especially if changing the law meant that person could never again possess a gun.
“People change,” Hansen said, but “I’d say, if they’ve got that kind of charge, there should be some very heavy vetting on whether or not they would be eligible.”
Lichtenegger has yet to file similar legislation for the upcoming legislative session. She said there may be alternative routes for reducing abusers’ ability to possess firearms, which don’t go through the Legislature.
St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton is himself addressing the issue.
Burton, who oversees the county’s domestic violence docket, launched a program this fall designed to reduce possession of firearms among those who have protective orders lodged against them.
“If they indicate that they possess a firearm, or if there’s credible evidence to suggest that they do, we order them to get rid of the guns,” Burton said.
He said third parties can sign an affidavit attesting that they now control the guns, or, if they don’t, the St. Louis County Police Department can confiscate the firearms. The court has also started periodic compliance hearings, Burton said.
Burton said judges do have the authority to order the removal of handguns from abusive homes, but that judges don’t always specify in protective orders that the owners should forfeit them.
“If a judge does not fill out the specific order that says you cannot have a firearm, it’s very hard for the folks in law enforcement to be able to know what to do,” he said.
Federally licensed gun dealers conduct FBI background checks with prospective purchasers. But there are still gaps in the system, as evidenced by a man who in November used a rifle he purchased to gun down 25 people in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church. Authorities never entered his domestic violence conviction into the federal database.
Even though possession for domestic abusers is outlawed under federal law, local authorities can lack authority to confiscate guns at scenes of domestic disturbances.
Kevin Merritt, interim director of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association, said police cannot confiscate guns simply based on a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, a protective order with no clause requiring forfeiture, or an initial investigation into domestic violence.
“That in and of itself is not enough to confiscate firearms found inside the house,” he said.
Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, sponsored legislation last session that would have required law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from a household if the officer determined there was probable cause that domestic violence had occurred.
“Law enforcement often knows who these violent people are in their communities,” McCreery said.
The bill failed to pass.
By Jack Suntrup St. Louis Post-Dispatch