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On the trail: NRA keeps low profile on Missouri's 'gun nullification' bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The National Rifle Association hasn't been shy about touting Missouri-based bills that earned its support.

When Gov. Matt Blunt signed the so-called Castle Doctrine and “Hunting Heritage Protection Areas Act” bills, NRA lobbyist Chris Cox joined the Republican chief executive on his  signing tour. Cox said in a prepared statement: “I can’t think of a better early celebration of the 4th of July than by the signing into law of two important bills that reaffirm freedom.”

Earlier that year, Blunt signed legislation barring firearms confiscation at the NRA’s national convention in St. Louis. Coxprovided another statement thanking Blunt for “championing freedom and law and order."

But compared to its loquacious nature in 2007, the NRA has been downright silent about the “Second Amendment Preservation Act.”

That bill, among other things, declares that "all past, present, or future federal acts, laws, orders, rules, or regulations that infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms" are "invalid, will not be recognized, are specifically rejected, and will be considered null and void and of no effect in this state." It also states that “any official, agent, or employee of the United States government” who enforces or attempts to enforce “any of the infringements on the right to keep and bear arms included [in the bill]” is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill -- also known as HB 436 -- earlier this summer, contending that Rep. Doug Funderburk's bill was unconstitutional on a number of fronts. The legislation is widely expected to face court challenges if the legislature overrides Nixon’s veto later this fall.

Some detractors of the bill have cited the bill to showcase how the so-called “gun lobby” has run amok. After Nixon's veto, Melissa Brooks of the St. Louis Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America thanked the governor for "putting our children and families’ interests above special interests, including the ever prevalent gun lobby that continues to wield undue influence over the Missouri State Legislature.”

But if prominent gun rights groups such as the NRA had a hand in getting HB 436 across the finish line, they aren’t saying much about it. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam never returned a call from the Beacon asking whether his organization had an opinion on the bill or considered it a “rated” vote.

According to a committee summary, the NRA didn’t testify when Funderburk’s bill went through a House committee. By comparison, the group did testify in support for a bill allowing state employees to have firearms in their vehicle on state property.

The NRA’s relative silence on the bill appears to be par for the course. When ProPublica wrote about similar legislationpercolating in Kansas and Alaska, they noted the NRA had “kept a low profile on nullification.” The group’s spokesman also didn’t respond to the publication’s request for a comment.

In a telephone interview, Funderburk, R-St. Charles, told the Beacon he’s been studying the idea of the states actively combating overreaching federal laws for some time. While he said other groups and individuals have shared their thoughts and ideas, he added that the NRA had no role in getting his bill passed.

“The NRA has had absolutely no involvement with this effort whatsoever and has never indicated that they would like to have any involvement,” Funderburk said “I’m not saying that they don’t support it, but I’m definitely saying I don’t know if they do.”

“I think it might fall a little bit outside of what their scope and their mission is,” he added. “The NRA has kept its distance from this type and kind of efforts and are still doing so today. And I’m OK with that.”

ProPublica noted that a group known as the Tenth Amendment Center has been supportive of “gun nullification” efforts. That organization even provides “model legislation” for states and local entities to use. Gun Owners of America and Concerned Women for America of Missouri also support the proposal.

Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, said last Wednesday that the lack of comment from the nation’s largest and most powerful gun rights group sends a strong message to people considering overriding Funderburk's bill.

“I think that more rational Second Amendment believers are looking at this and going ‘well wait a minute – maybe this doesn’t make the most sense,’” LaFaver said. “And certainly when the NRA – the NRA of all organizations – is going ‘yeah, we’re going to stay clear of this one,’ I think that should give people some pause.”

But after noting that his bill has been more of a “grassroots” effort than a top-down push by a powerful interest group, Funderburk said his bill – and the likely pursuit to override Nixon’s veto – have received broad support from the public.

He said the bill’s detractors “want to look at people like me as a layperson that doesn’t know what he’s talking about and try to make a mockery of my efforts.”

“And that’s fine,” Funderburk said. “But this is the effort of thousands of people from all over the country. I have been contacted by eight different state legislatures who are interested in this legislation.”

“And they are all sitting back waiting to see if we’re going to override the governor’s veto,” he added. “And we are.”

Override anyway

Indeed, it’s increasingly likely that lawmakers will override Nixon’s objection when they return on Sept. 11 for veto session.

Funderburk said he put the bill forward because he wanted “to make sure that Missourians are protected from the vacillations” and “wild schemes” out of “what has proven to be, especially over the last 6 or 8 years, an incompetent Congress.” House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka,told the Politically Speaking podcast earlier that the main focus of the bill “is a result of the federal government sticking its nose into the Second Amendment issue where it does not belong.”

And it’s not only Republicans like Jones that feel that way. Both the Beacon and the Associated Press reported that a number of House Democrats – some from rural parts of the state -- that are poised to override Nixon. Even Democrats in safe districts – like Rep. Keith English, D-Florissant – are planning to override the governor.

But if a major political and organizational force like the National Rifle Association isn’t engaged in the bill or isn’t promising political retribution for non-support, then why are Republicans and some Democrats so eager to override Nixon’s veto?

“That’s a great question. I don’t know why,” LaFaver said. “I’ve been a hunter ever since I was little. I don’t get it. I really don’t understand it.”

When posed with a similar question earlier this month, Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, responded “the Grand Old Party’s very good at these wedge issues. And that’s what this is. It’s a wedge issue.”

“You know, you come down to Tower Grove where gun violence has increased and you ask my constituents do we want to relax gun control laws? Heck no. You ask a law abiding gun owner if they want to make it easier for convicted felons to have guns? Heck no,” Colona said on the Politically Speaking podcast. “But I think what happens is you have folks that push the wedge issues for pure political position. And then you have folks like Rep. Funderburk who truly believe in what he’s doing.”

Some Democrats – including Rep. T.J. McKenna – have faced some backlash. McKenna, D-Jefferson County, was the subject of a scathing St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial for telling the AP he would vote for an override even though he also noted the bill has constitutional issues.

But Colona said “it took more guts for him to say what he said than for him to say ‘oh no no. I’m going to vote to sustain the veto because principally it’s the right thing to do.’” He went onto say that Republicans could target Democrats in competitive districts for voting against anything labeled a “gun bill.”

“We have principle and then we have practicality,” Colona said. “And for Rep. McKenna to say ‘I’ve got to be practical here. My district really wants this. And if I’m going to come back and represent these people, I got to vote my district.’"

On his own?

If Funderburk’s bill comes up for an override vote, at least one Republican plans to vote against overturning Nixon’s veto.

After noting that “our first duty is to defend the Constitution,” Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, told the Beacon that Funderburk’s “bill is clearly unconstitutional.”

“As I said to the AP, the Constitution is not a cheap Chinese buffet. We don’t get to pick the parts we like and discard the ones that we don’t,” Barnes said. “Each part of the Constitution has meaning. There’s two centuries of jurisprudence that shows it’s unconstitutional. It’s an easy vote.”

Among other things, Barnes joined others contending a provision restricting publications from publishing somebody’s gun ownership or conceal and carry information was unconstitutional. He went onto say that the bill embraces an idea “that the Missouri General Assembly is going to dictate in a bill that we passed which federal laws are constitutional and which are not.

“After we have made that determination for which we have no legal authority to make, the bill makes it a crime for a federal official to enforce federal gun laws – including a federal ban on the knowing sale of a firearm to a convicted felon and to a person adjudicated mentally incompetent,” said Barnes, who is an attorney. “That’s another area of unconstitutionality. … We cannot criminalize the carrying out of federal law by federal law enforcement officials.”

Asked about the NRA’s lack of involvement with the bill and why he thought his colleagues planned to override, Barnes said: “As to the first question, I can’t speak for the NRA. As to the second question, I can’t speak for other individual members. You’re asking me to speak for others. And the only person I can speak for is myself.”

For his part, Funderburk praised Barnes as a “great guy” and a “smart guy.” But he also said “I continually try him remind him that he is a product of more recent education and indoctrination.”

“They want to wipe away the 10th Amendment and say we all should bow to the crowns in Washington, D.C., and the states are almost irrelevant and shouldn’t be involved in the decision making process,” Funderburk said. “That’s pretty much what they’re taught in law school today. I tell Jay ‘you’ve been recently educated and indoctrinated. But I’m looking at the teaching of the Founding Fathers.’”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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