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Missouri Senate leader says he killed gun bill because it had too many flaws

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2013: Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says he decided to become last week’s pivotal vote against the bill nullifying federal gun laws when it became clear to him that the legislation had too many poorly drafted provisions.

What drove that point home, he said Thursday, was when backers of the bill (HB436) privately acknowledged the problems to him -- but predicted that lawsuits would toss out some of the errant provisions.

Such talk, said Dempsey, was “an admission that we could have done a better job of drafting the language.”

“Depending on a lawsuit to stop it. That’s not the best answer, either,” he said.

If relying on judges was necessary, the Senate leader said, then the bill needed to be killed – and a better one crafted next session to take its place.

“We can just do it the right way,” he said. “We can take care of it early next year.”

Dempsey provided his most indepth explanation to date of his decision during a lengthy interview Thursday on the Politically Speaking podcast, a weekly joint venture of the St. Louis Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio.

Until the interview, Dempsey had said little publicly since casting the key Senate vote that prevented an override of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the bill. The override passed the Missouri House by the necessary 109 votes, but fell one vote short in the state Senate.

Dempsey and Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, provided the two GOP votes needed to kill the bill, siding with all 10 of the Senate’s Democrats.

Dempsey primarily has stood by a statement that he issued right after the vote. The crux of that statement was that he was a strong supporter of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, but that he also believed in the First Amendment, which grants free speech.

“I know I wasn’t the only legislator in either chamber that was concerned about the impact of the bill, and some of the negative consequences,” Dempsey said Thursday.

The Senate leader emphasized that he generally has voted in favor of gun legislation during his 13 years in the General Assembly, and that he agrees with some of the bill's backers that some officials in Washington appear bent on curbing the right to bear arms.

Officially known as the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” HB436 barred enforcement of federal gun laws in Missouri, banned the publication of the names of gun owners and – according to law enforcement groups – would have prevented Missouri law enforcement from participating in state-federal task forces to fight terrorism or other crimes.

Dempsey had voted for the bill during the regular legislative session “based on the information I had at the time,” he said.

His opinion began to change, Dempsey continued, as Attorney General Chris Koster and several major law enforcement groups joined Nixon with detailed objections and concerns. He also noted that the National Rifle Association had taken no position on the bill.

“To go to the threshold of overriding the governor, the level of certainty needed to be there,” Dempsey said. “Frankly, at the end of the day, I was concerned about the unintended consequences of the bill.”

He added that a successful override could “embarrass the legislature or embarrass the majority party” as more details of the bill’s problems became public.

For example, Dempsey noted that a federal law bars illegal immigrants from possessing firearms – but there's no such state law. As a result, he said, law enforcement told him that the bill would make it legal in Missouri for illegal immigrants to be armed.

Dempsey said he made his decision clear during a caucus of the Senate’s 24 Republicans just prior to the override vote. “We didn’t ask everybody what their vote was going to be,” he said.

However, he added, “members knew when we left our meeting that I was voting ‘No.’ “

After the vote, Dempsey acknowledged taking some political heat for his action, but said he has gotten some praise as well. In any case, the Senate leader said he made his decision based on what he believed to be the best policy decision – not what would make the most political sense.

Speaking in general about his own political future, Dempsey -- who leaves the General Assembly after 2016 -- said, "First, I need to do a good job as a senator for my district and as president of the Senate," and focus on "the problems that we need to solve as a state."

"If that makes me less electable," he added, "Then that shouldn’t be a consideration."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.