Judy Sherry, a longtime Kansas City advocate against gun violence, founded a volunteer organization to mobilize legislative efforts in Missouri after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Since then, she woefully admits, “nothing meaningful” has changed on the gun reform front in her state. On the contrary, in June, her Republican governor, Mike Parson, passed a new law supposedly meant to protect Second Amendment enthusiasts from “government overreach.” But advocates like Sherry and even law enforcement officials—who normally support gun rights—believe it is a dangerous nod to Parson’s right-wing base.
The Second Amendment Protection Act bars state and local police from working with the feds to enforce any laws, rules, orders or actions that “violate the Second Amendment rights of Missourians.” Any officer who “deprives” Missouri citizens of their right to pack a gun could be liable for $50,000 in damages—including cops. Although it doesn’t go into effect until the end of August, advocates, local police and federal officials have said it’s already hurting shooting investigations in a state where they are rampant.
“It’s hideous,” Sherry said of the law. “They talk so much about the rights of gun owners, as if non-gun owners and the rest of the population have no right to feel safe.”
Although Parson promised that the ability of local police to assist the feds would remain “unchanged” after the bill, Frederic Winston, the special agent-in-charge of the Kansas City ATF, said it has already wreaked havoc on gun crimes investigations as local officers have dropped out of task forces and police departments have cut off sharing vital information to the feds.
In a recent court filing as part of an ongoing lawsuit by the City of St. Louis against the governor and the attorney general, Winston wrote that the bill, known as SAPA, “impedes” his agency’s ability to stem violent gun crimes—an admission that comes a full year after officials in the state were celebrating a partnership with federal officials to reduce gun violence under President Trump.
Rick Walter, former sheriff of the Scott County Sheriff’s Office, told The Daily Beast the bill has also sent shockwaves around local law enforcement circles as many officers and leaders of departments are scared of being fined or sued for the amount of money most make in a yearly salary. “At a small department, you’re talking about a person that could potentially be eliminated,” he said. “You actually would be taking officers off the street because of fines.”
In a state that Trump solidly carried in 2020 and where the idea to defund the police was largely a non-starter, Walter said it is ironic that Parson’s bill effectively advocates for it.
“If you impose these fines,” he said, “you’re effectively defunding law enforcement.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Parson defended the bill as “protecting law-abiding Missourians against government overreach and unconstitutional federal mandates." He also said it was passed in an attempt to stop a theoretical plan by President Joe Biden to impose gun controls.
"We will reject any attempt by the federal government to circumvent the fundamental right Missourians have to keep and bear arms to protect themselves and their property. Throughout my career, I have always stood for the Constitution and our Second Amendment rights, and that will not change today or any day."
Parson did not comment about law enforcement’s concerns about compromised investigations.
Which, you would imagine, would be on his mind given the dramatic rise in gun violence in his state.
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, there were nearly 14,000 gun offenses in 2020 in the state, which is 107 percent higher than 2019. Of the 730 murders in the state in 2020, 75 percent involved a gun. In Kansas City and St. Louis, guns were used in more than 80 percent of all homicides that occurred in both cities in 2020.
In a June statement shortly after Parson signed the bill into law, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said Parson’s bill was effectively “throwing up barriers to stop police from doing their most important job —preventing and solving violent crime.” St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page said the law was akin to the state “holding out a sign that says ‘Come Commit Gun Violence Here’.”
Sherry, whose advocacy group is called Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, said she has never advocated for stripping guns away from Missourians, but rather for laws like mandatory background checks. She said she understands little ground will be made by those who seek to totally limit gun rights. “But how can you say that a gun owner has more rights than we do and now has the ability to keep the federal government from doing what it takes to cut down gun deaths?”
In his court filing, Winston said the ATF’s ability to stop people from illegally getting guns and to solve gun crimes depends on shared data, resources and officers from local authorities. Already there have been state and local officers who’ve withdrawn from joint task forces focused on investigating gun crimes.
Before the law was passed, the ATF had 53 local officers in Missouri who participated on joint task forces with federal officers, Winston wrote. But since his filing this week, 12 officers have already withdrawn from the task force.
They include officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Columbia Police Department, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, the O’Fallon Police Department and the Sedalia Police Department.
Jeff Pitts, a spokesman for the Columbia Police Department declined to comment, but added that the department will “continue to monitor” the court proceedings in St. Louis.
Matthew Wirt, the chief of police for the Sedalia Police Department, told The Daily Beast that the decision to reassign two officers once part of an ATF task force was due to the new law. “The SPD will continue to investigate firearms violations from a state perspective,” he said.
Thomas Drabelle, a spokesman for the O’Fallon Police Department, said they decided to stop two of their K-9 officers from assisting ATF task force investigations after the passage of the bill. Drabelle said the department “decided that it is in the best interest of our officers to cease this practice.”
Days after Parson signed the bill, Philip Dupuis, the former chief of police of the O’Fallon Police Department, resigned, citing the bill in a press release announcing his departure. Although Dupuis said he was a “strong proponent” of the Second Amendment, he said the bill was “poorly worded” and allows for police to be sued for “even good-faith, justified seizures of firearms in emergency circumstances.” He also anticipated a “flood of weaponized litigation” that would “chill” the duties of police.
Dupuis later told KMOV4 that the bill might have made sense if President Biden had committed to “taking up everybody’s AR-15s or their high capacity magazines” and Parson wanted to hold cops accountable who assisted in those efforts. “But to hold individual officers for assisting a federal agency is horrific," he told the outlet.
Nonetheless, the idea that Biden is planning such a strategy has been cited by defenders of the law in court.
Last week, Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, while representing the state in court as part of the St. Louis lawsuit, cited statements by Biden advocating for gun control during his campaign for president as proof that the law was needed as an “anticipatory” bulwark for theoretical future federal measures, according to the Springfield News-Leader.
Walter, a proud gun owner, called the reasoning “political grandstanding.”
“I’ve yet to hear anybody threatening to come and take anybody’s guns,” he said, adding that the guns that are confiscated in federal investigations and partnerships aren’t the guns of law-abiding citizens. “If they’re bad guys, they’re felons, they’re criminals” he said, “then they definitely need to lose their guns and their rights.”
Sherry said the rhetoric from Parson and others defending the bill is also hypocritical given Parson’s support for federal and local partnerships in 2020 under President Trump.
After the June 2020 murder of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro in Kansas City, the Department of Justice announced they would inject an influx of federal agents to the city to help combat the rise in violence. By September the Department of Justice celebrated “Operation LeGend” and touted the seizure of nearly 200 guns.
In an August 2020 press conference discussing the operation’s expansion to St. Louis, Parson acknowledged a “serious problem” with the homicide rate in the state. “No one agency is going to be able to fix us,” he said, adding that it would take the effort of federal and local officials. “It’s going to take all of us working together to really go after this problem.”
But according to Winston, the ATF special agent-in-charge, Parson’s bill just a year later is not only reducing the ability of officers to work together on shared task forces, but also leading to a decline in the crucial information-sharing that often leads to arrests.
In his court filing last week, Winston wrote that agencies like the Missouri State Highway Patrol have already stopped providing investigative support to the ATF, including background information on potential arrest targets.
The Highway Patrol has also stopped submitting gun trace requests to the ATF, which Winston wrote is crucial to help identify guns used in crimes and link suspects to them. Meanwhile, a Kansas City Police Department evidence technician has denied releasing investigative records to the ATF, specifically citing Parson’s law.
More troubling is the fact that “several” state and local agencies have also said they won’t input data into a national ballistics database which helps provide leads for suspects in gun crimes, according to the filing. “This technology is vital to any violent crime reduction strategy because it enables investigators to match ballistics evidence with other cases across the nation,” Winston wrote.
In March, the ATF embedded a machine in the Columbia Police Department to process the ballistics data. But days after Parson signed SAPA, it was taken offline. In the few months it had been running, it gave the ATF 32 investigative leads and helped them link 15 guns to shootings. Since going offline, 22 shell casings and 21 guns recovered at crime scenes in the area haven’t been processed.
“This backlog represents investigatory leads that have been allowed to go by the wayside,” Winston wrote.
Walter said that for local police, sharing resources with the feds is crucial. “If you’re working a crime and there is a gun involved, they are your go to people to help find as much information about this gun as possible,” he said. “Without them a lot of investigations could stop right there at that point.”
In a statement of interest included as part of the lawsuit in St. Louis, the Department of Justice wrote that the bill “has caused, and will continue to cause, significant harms” to law enforcement in Missouri. They also declared the bill “legally invalid” because the state of Missouri doesn’t have the power to cancel out federal laws.
In his own filing, Winston wrote that SAPA will “cause a strain” on law enforcement relationships and “prevent” them “at all levels from effectively serving and protecting the citizens of Missouri and other states.”
But in response to the filings, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has publicly supported the bill, echoed the theory that President Biden was somehow targeting the state and their guns.
“Yet again, Biden’s Department of Justice is attempting to infringe on Missourians’ Second Amendment rights,” Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, told The Daily Beast. “We have and will continue to vociferously defend those Second Amendment rights, while prosecuting violent crime.”
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment. But Sherry said the defense makes no sense.
“Why don’t you wait and let Biden come to your house and while Kamala is vaccinating you and he takes your gun, then you run to Jefferson City and pass a law,” she said. “I have not heard Biden say a word about, ‘I’m coming for your guns’. That’s just absurd.”