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Chamber, church and city join to save tool they call crucial to combatting city's gun violence

Leah Gunning Francis, second from left, locks arms with Rev. Karen Anderson, Betty Thompson, Rev. Traci Blackmon and Valerie Richmon of Austin, Tx at the front of the Mother's March on October 18, 2014.,
Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis is joining a legal fight to retain a criminal charge officials say is necessary to control the gun violence plaguing the city.

The city, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, SSM Healthcare, the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber are joining together in a amicus curiae brief (friend of the court) to the state Supreme Court. In three cases, St. Louis judges threw out unlawful possession of firearms charges based on their reading of Amendment 5.

"Those institutions represented as amici do not agree on everything, but all amici agree that law enforcement must have the necessary tools to reduce gun crime in the city of St. Louis," the briefs say.

Missouri Constitutional Amendment 5, passed in 2014, made the right to keep and bear arms a unalienable right and limited restrictions to convicted violent felons and those found by a court to be dangerous because of mental illness.

In all three cases, the circuit attorney is appealing the decision to dismiss the possession charge -- the amicus brief from the city supplements the prosecutor's arguments.

"Amendment 5 is causing a lot of difficulty for judges, for prosecutors, for police officers," Mayor Francis Slay said. "Charging a convicted felon with possession is  now being questioned because of this ridiculous constitutional amendment that our legislators in Jefferson City put on the ballot. We're the city of St. Louis. We have far too much gun violence. We need to be addressed in a different way."   

The background

The specific facts of the cases differ, but all three men -- Steven Lomax, Raymond Robinson, and Pierre Clay -- were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, colloquially known as  felon-in-possession.  The state statute makes it a class C felony for anyone who has been convicted in the past of a felony to knowingly possess a weapon.

The judge in all three cases dismissed the felon-in-possession charge, citing the following language in Amendment 5: 

"Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the general assembly from enacting general laws which 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."

The judges did not throw out the felon-in-possession statute in its entirety. Rather, they ruled that because none of the men had been convicted of violent felonies, Amendment 5 gave them the right to carry guns, state law not withstanding. 

Judge Steven Ohmer did not provide any legal reasoning for his decision in Lomax's case. But in an opinion issued in February 2015 in Raymond Robinson's case, Judge Robert Dierker wrote that while the state's interest in crime prevention and public safety were compelling, "It is difficult to see how the statute's undifferentiated prohibition on possession of firearms by all convicted felons is narrowly drawn to achieve the State's legitimate objectives." He would apply that legal reasoning to Clay's case as well.

The amicus brief

The brief frames the legal arguments around the social and economic costs of gun violence in the city.

"The city and its law enforcement professionals already have too few tools to combat gun violence, but this case puts one of those key tools -- keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons -- at risk," it reads. "The Court's decision here also threatens to undermine the stability of family life in this city. This Court must, of course, balance many considerations, but paramount among them in the security of the families who call our State home. Many of those families live in neighborhoods flooded with guns and riddled by bullets."

The vast majority of the city's 95 homicideshave been committed with firearms, and there had been more than 1,000 aggravated assaults with a gun as of June 30. (Not all those crimes involved someone being shot -- in some cases, the victims were at great risk of being struck by a bullet.)

In arguing that the felon-in-possession statute is still constitutional even when applied to those convicted of non-violent felonies, the brief cites heavily from a recent Supreme Court decision upholding Amendment 5.

"... 'The central purpose of the amendment to article I, section 23, is not to change the right to bear arms, but make certain declarations about that right.' Because that amendment was not intended to change the right to bear arms, it should not be interpreted as radically gutting the long-standing Missouri law that has affirmed the Legislature's right to regulate possession of firearms by felons and through other gun regulations."

The brief also argues that even if the Missouri Supreme Court decides that restrictions on gun ownership must be heavily scrutinized, the felon-in-possession statute meets the burden of being narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest.

"Well-accepted data demonstrates that prohibiting prior convicted felons from possession of firearms can lead to reduced gun crime. ... A statute prohibiting persons with both violent and non-violent offenders from possessing firearms is this narrowly tailored to that group of persons most likely to commit future violent or gun-related offenses."

Next steps

The Supreme Court took all three cases on direct appeal because they raise questions about the validity of a state statute. The parties are still filing briefs. Once that process is complete, the cases will be scheduled for oral arguments, though they are likely to be consolidated before that occurs.

The Supreme Court had already heard arguments in two other felon-in-possession cases, both from the city of St. Louis. The judges have not issued a ruling in either.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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