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Chappelle-Nadal plans to make mark in legislative debate over guns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 23, 2013 - State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal issued a warning earlier this week to proponents of gun rights in the Missouri legislature: Give her legislation a chance or be prepared to listen to her a lot when your gun-related bill comes to floor.

The University City Democrat followed through on those words this week, when Sen. Dan Brown’s bill requiring education and training about gun safety at schools came to the floor. It included a requirement that first graders be shown the “Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program,” a cartoon about gun safety furnished by the National Rifle Association.

In an exchange with Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, Chappelle-Nadal talked about the details of her bill that, among other things, would prompt parents or guardians to notify schools if they own a firearm. The bill isn't likely to get much traction in the Republican-dominated legislature, where bills restricting firearms aren't getting much attention.

And for Chappelle-Nadal, that sort of reaction is a sign of disrespect about her district -- which encompasses portions of eastern and northern St. Louis County.

"This is something I am willing to fall on the sword for," she said on the Senate floor. "I asked people who were against my bill 'do you not care about a black life? Do you not think that a black child is equal to any other child in this state?' Because apparently there are people in this state and otherwise who don't care about a black life. ... And they have legislation such as this that puts our citizens in our communities at risk more than they already are."

Brown's bill eventually received approval after the Senate approved Chappelle-Nadal’s amendment making the provisions in the legislation optional. But her advocacy on the bill followed up on what she told the Beacon this week: “Any bill dealing with guns this year will have to go through me.”

As a director for the University City School Board, Chappelle-Nadal says she’s seen the aftermath of gun violence firsthand. Before the Sandy Hook shootings, a 12-year-old student in her district was shot by another 12-year-old. And she also became personally affected when she saw how a troubled youth in her neighborhood sprayed gang markings on her neighbor’s back porch.

In recent weeks, Chappelle-Nadal said she’s been getting a closer look at gang violence that’s gripped portions of her state Senate district. She hosted a forum earlier this week entitled "Guns, Gangs and Schools" at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And she’s ridden along with police officials from St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis to get a sense of how gangs operate in the region.

She contends much of the discussion about gun control in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., haven’t dealt with specific instances of gun violence in the urban core.  

“All the national conversation – all the national conversation – was about high-capacity magazines, AK-47s, Bushmasters,” she told the Beacon outside the Meshuggah Cafe in University City. “It didn’t deal with the everyday occurrences in the hood and the areas that I represent and I love. And I felt so much dismay, because not everyone comes from suburbia. And what happens in suburbia is not the same thing that happens in the inner city.”

When she rode along with police, she said she discovered that gangs in the St. Louis area are broken up by blocks in a neighborhood. If one gang members goes onto another’s territory to get a sandwich, she said, they will likely be targeted by gunfire. She discussed how gang members procured handguns through robbing homes or cars.

Both Chappelle-Nadal and Nasheed rode with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department earlier this month to get a better assessment of the situation. In an interview with the Beacon, Nasheed concurred with Chappelle-Nadal that handguns – not necessarily automatic weapons – are the key problems in her St. Louis city-based district.

“A lot of times what you will find (is) people will not take their guns inside restaurants. They leave them in the car,” Nasheed said. “And then you have a high increase in burglaries with cars and the guns are in the cars. So what you have is a major problem not with AK-47s or MAC-10s, you have a problem with handguns in the inner cities. And the handguns are actually what are wiping out the poor black kids.”

But a more systemic problem, Chappelle-Nadal said, is a lack of parental involvement, which was part of the impetus behind the legislation requiring parents to alert schools if they own a gun.

“The indirect positive is (this) starts the conversation within the community,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “So, let’s say the school district knows that Keisha is having problems at school. And oh by the way, it’s on file that their parent owns a gun in the house. Well, that administration is going to be really quick to say ‘parents of Keisha, we really need to talk about what’s going on with your child. We don’t want her ... coming to school to ... settle a score with a gun.’”

The bill creates criminal penalties on parents or guardians if they “negligently store” firearms or if they fail to stop the possession of an illegal firearm by their child or report it to law enforcement. That too, she said, goes hand-in-hand with her idea of “parental accountability.”

“Some of these parents who live in these areas know that their children have guns. They know it. They know that their children are members of gangs. They know this. And they do nothing about it,” she said. “I mean, we can’t conceptualize if you live in suburbia that my 17 year old has a gun and I’m alright with it. Most of us can’t conceptualize that. I can’t conceptualize that. That’s just wrong.”

“But the fact is that they know,” she added. “And police officers who I’ve spoken to – they have told me this – they have gone in the home. And they’ve asked the parent ‘do you know what’s in your son’s room. And the parents says ‘I don’t go in his room – what would I go in his room for?’ But he’s part of gang. He’s been in fights. He’s involved in all of these different things. And the parent doesn’t do anything about it – nothing about it.”

Tough sledding

Chappelle-Nadal’s bill seemed doomed from the start when it was directed to the Senate General Laws Committee, where Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, serves as chairman.

Asked if he would talk to the Beacon about Chappelle-Nadal’s bill, an aide to Nieves said in an e-mail that the first-term senator was “extremely busy” this session and “would not be available for media interviews at this time.” 

But when Nieves appeared on the Fox News Channel earlier this year to react to the bill, he said “I can tell you with fairly good predictability that this bill is not going to find a happy place in my committee.”

“I certainly don’t think the Constitution says anything about teachers or school administrators becoming government investigators. I think this is a very bad bill,” Nieves told the cable news channel. “As with any piece of gun legislation, what happens is the criminals obviously will completely ignore this. And only law-abiding citizens would follow this law. And only law-abiding citizens would have their privacy violated.”

In many ways, Nieves’ reaction is not surprising – or unusual – in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. Republicans in the legislature have aggressively pushed back against gun control proposals from Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Rory Ellinger’s bill to make it a class C felony “to manufacture, import, possess, purchase, sell, or transfer any assault weapon or large capacity magazine.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced bills widening the ability of teachers and administrators to conceal and carry. And in perhaps a sign of the wide divide on the issue, state Rep. Mike Leara, R-St. Louis County, introduced a bill this week making it a class D felony for a legislator to propose any bills that "restrict Second Amendment rights."

And several lawmakers sponsored legislation declaring unenforceable any federal law or executive order related to gun control more restrictive than the law in effect on December 31, 2012. Supporters see such measures as pushing back against national efforts to restrict firearms. Critics have said those types of bills are unconstitutional, as federal laws always trump state law.

(And even if those GOP bills go through the process, they will have to be signed in to law by Gov. Jay Nixon. Nixon, a Democrat, came out against Rep. Mike Kelley's proposal on arming teachers and has instead focused on increasing funding for mental health.)

'Go through me'

While Chappelle-Nadal supports efforts to ban semi-automatic weapons or limit how many bullets can be stored in a magazine, she added that those proposals don’t have much resonance in parts of her district.

“What does it mean to a person in a black community to talk about AK-47s? It doesn’t mean anything, because they’re not robbing people with AK-47s and using high-capacity magazines,” she said. “Now, do I think we should have a ban on those? Yeah, fully. But I’m dealing with my district and the issues we have in my district. I’m not dealing with suburbia. I’m dealing with the inner city.”

But Chappelle-Nadal is even more upset at her Republican critics – such as Nieves. She contends people who spoke out against her bill “didn’t even bother to know about my district.” Most negative correspondence to her bill, she says, comes from people who don’t even live in Missouri.

“If they’re going to be as hateful and short-sighted to not give me a fair opportunity to talk about the concerns of my district, at that point they have a complete disregard and disrespect for the people that I represent,” she added. “And for that, I do not respect that behavior. And I’m not going to let it go unnoticed.”

For her part, Nasheed said noted that Chappelle-Nadal filibustered last session for 10 straight hours – proof that she’s a “force to be reckoned with.” Chappelle-Nadal noted Tuesday on the floor that she’s ready and willing to filibuster for longer.

But Nasheed – who stood by Chappelle-Nadal when she unveiled her bill at a press conference, but hasn’t taken a position on the measure – said she plans to focus her energy on filibustering efforts to implement a photo identification requirement to vote and barring unions from deducting dues from paychecks.

“I’m going to have to be very strategic," she added.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.