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Gun rights and 'right to farm' amendments misled voters, critics tell Missouri Supreme Court

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Mo.
(via Flickr/david_shane)
The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Mo.

Two controversial constitutional amendments faced challenges before the Missouri Supreme Court Wednesday. Approved by voters last August, Amendment 5 strengthened gun owners' rights while Amendment 1 limited the ability to regulate farming and ranching.

Attorneys for plaintiffs in both cases made similar arguments. They contended that the language used in the right-to-farm and gun rights amendments misled voters into passing them, and they're asking the high court to toss out the election results for both Amendment 5 and Amendment 1

Expanded gun rights

Amendment 5 passed with nearly 61 percent of the vote.  The official title reads:  "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to include a declaration that the right to keep and bear arms is a unalienable right and that the state government is obligated to uphold that right?"

The amendment was the result of legislation driven by fears that Congress would try to pass gun control legislation or that the president would try to achieve similar ends through executive action.


Attorney Chuck Hatfield argued for the plaintiffs, who included St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson. Hatfield contends that the ballot language is misleading and that voters didn't know all the consequences of passing the amendment.

"Yes, they voted overwhelmingly (in favor) because they were deceived, just like every day people buy products online that they think are good products, get them back to the house, and you open them up and it's crap," Hatfield told reporters. "That's why we have consumer fraud laws in this state, and that's why we have a right to review what was on the ballot."

Hatfield says the "strict scrutiny" language in the amendment could undo several gun control laws in Missouri and could even lead to allowing sports fans to carry guns to games. In St. Louis, for example, two felons charged with owning firearms are using Amendment 5 to challenge their lifetime ban on gun ownership.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who sponsored Amendment 5, told the court's justices that there was "zero chance" that Missouri voters were misled.

"I don't think the (state Supreme) Court now can look at how Missourians voted, and overwhelmingly voted, to strengthen the right to keep and bear arms, and then say 'well we think somebody was misled,'" Schaefer said.

In addition to deciding whether the language used in Amendment 5 was misleading or not, the seven judges are weighing whether they even have the authority to review ballot summaries.  Secretary of State Jason Kander, listed as a defendant, responded in court papers that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Missouri Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction.

Right to farm

The Supreme Court is also weighing the same questions of jurisdictional and sufficient language in the lawsuit challenging the right-to-farm constitutional amendment.

Amendment One was very narrowly passed last summer by Missouri voters, by only 2,375 votes out of about a million cast. Designed to limit regulations on farming and ranching, it was crafted and promoted by House and Senate Republicans following earlier battles with animal rights advocates over large-scale dog breeding facilities, often referred to as "puppy mills," and the passage of an initiative to regulate dog breeders.

Proponents view the amendment as safeguarding family farmers from overzealous federal regulators and animal rights groups, including PETA and the Humane Society of the United States. Opponents maintain that it would mainly protect large-scale corporate farming operations, including those based in foreign countries.

Anthony DeWitt, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the amendment language was misleading and that the phrase "farmers and ranchers" does not apply to all Missouri citizens.

"The lady here in town who wants to grow a garden and has a big plot of land, she is subject to the regulation under the zoning laws and health and safety codes with regard to what she can use to fertilize that land," DeWitt said.  "She is not going to be able to seek solace under this amendment; she is a Missouri citizen, but she's not a farmer or a rancher."

Deputy Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan, representing the secretary of state's office, argued that  individuals would be covered by the right-to-farm amendment.

"Missouri citizens are the ones that (voted) on this, so they (read) it in respect to their rights," Morgan told the Court.  "To the extent that it goes further and it covers foreign corporations? I don't know that it will, necessarily...it depends upon how this court would interpret farmers and ranchers, (but) Missouri citizens includes corporations, of course."

The Missouri Supreme Court will issue rulings in both cases at a later date.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.