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State Supreme Court upholds amendment that broadened gun rights in Missouri

(via Flickr/M Glasgow)

The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld a constitutional amendment that broadened gun rights in the state.

Voters approved Amendment 5 in August 2014 with 61 percent of the vote. It made the right to own firearms, ammunition and other accessories in the state "unalienable," and said any form of gun control should be subject to "strict scrutiny." The amendment also allowed the open carrying of guns.

It also preserved the right of the state General Assembly to enact laws that "limit the rights of convicted violent felons or those adjudicated by a court to be a danger to self or others as a result of a mental disorder or mental infirmity." 

St. Louis Metropolitan Police chief Sam Dotson and Rebecca Morgan, a St. Louis-based volunteer with the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, filed suit before the 2014 election alleging that the language the voters would see on the ballot was unfair because it did not accurately reflect the major changes the amendment would make to  state law.

But the timing of the lawsuit meant a ruling could not happen before the August 2014 vote. The plaintiffs filed a second challenge, seeking to have the results of the election invalidated because the summary was unfair. It read:

"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?"

In an unsigned opinion issued Tuesday, six of the seven Supreme Court ruled that Dotson and Morgan could indeed challenge the ballot summary after the election, but found that the language was not unfair. The six did not all agree on the legal reasoning to reach that conclusion.

Judge Richard Teitelman was the only judge to agree with Dotson and Morgan that the summary masked big changes in the way the state handled gun control legislation. "By omitting the substance of SJR 36 [the resolution that put Amendment 5 on the ballot], the summary amounted to little more than an electoral sleight of hand," he wrote. "As a matter of law, Missouri voters deserve better."

Dotson is a frequent critic of what he calls the unintended consequences of Amendment 5.  In a statement, he said he was "deeply disappointed" in the ruling.

"The court may have thought that this was a benign case about the language on a ballot measure, but Amendment 5 is already causing serious public safety problems in St. Louis and across Missouri," he said. "I don't believe that this is what Missouri voters had in mind when the issue came before them in August; a law that makes us all less safe. Unfortunately, today, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to correct the deceptive language on the August ballot and let this dangerous law stand."

Political backers reaffirm support

The constitutional amendment has had political ramifications ever since it made the ballot. Its chief sponsor was state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who's also a 2016 candidate for attorney general.

“Today’s victory is a clear win for Missouri gun owners, sportsmen, and future generations who will continue to be able to enjoy one of our most fundamental rights, the right to keep and bear arms,” Schaefer said in a statement. “And make no mistake…liberals like Michael Bloomberg and St. Louis Police Chief Dodson who wish to take guns away from law-abiding citizens were dealt a major defeat. It was an honor to pass and defend this monumental amendment to our state’s constitution” 
Schaefer has taken some criticism over the amendment's wording, but has stood firm in his support. Some legislators sought during the last legislative session to make changes in the amendment, but no bill passed.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat running for governor in 2016, has stuck by Amendment 5 as well -- despite heat he has taken from fellow Democrats, including St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

In her own statement, Joyce said her office was closely reviewing the Supreme Court's decision.

"We remain very hopeful that we will retain our abilities to hold gun offenders accountable to ensure the safety of all citizens in the City of St. Louis," she said.

Koster reaffirmed his support shortly after the state Supreme Court announced its decision: “The court’s decision recognizes the common-sense belief of Missourians that strong support of the Second Amendment and strong support of law enforcement need not be in conflict in our state. I am grateful for the Court’s wisdom in this matter.”

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey also lauded the court's action.

“We carefully crafted the language to give voters the final say in how they want to protect their families," he said. "The measure passed overwhelming in the state. The court’s decision reassures us that courts must use the highest level of scrutiny to uphold any restrictions on our Second Amendment rights.”

Chris Koster received the backing of several major agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Credit Missouri Soybean Association
Chris Koster campaigning for "right to farm" amendment

On similar grounds, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday alsoupheld the so-called "right-to-farm" amendment.  Those two cases were argued on the same day.

Unlike the gun amendment, "right to farm" -- officially known as Amendment 1 -- was barely approved by Missouri voters. It also had generated sharp views on both sides, and highlighted the state's rural/urban divide.

Koster, by the way, had split with many in his party by endorsing "right to farm" as well.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

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