Posted on Sun, Feb. 03, 2002 From The Kansas City Star
Concealed-weapon bills are expected to get a major push this year

The Kansas City Star

While Missouri's budget problems have dominated the first month of the legislative session, just below the surface a showdown of sorts is brewing over concealed weapons.

The legislature's gun rights supporters, still fuming over the voters' rejection of concealed weapons three years ago, are girding themselves for a major push this year. Eight bills that would loosen the state's ban on concealed firearms have been introduced. Four would allow the general public to carry concealed weapons.

Democratic Rep. Wayne Crump of Potosi, the House majority leader, said both the House and Senate had enough votes to pass those bills. Support has grown, he said, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But Gov. Bob Holden said last week that he would veto any bill that would legalize concealed weapons. Last year, Holden said he would consider signing concealed-carry legislation if it did not compromise gun safety or law enforcement.

In an interview Wednesday, however, the governor said he saw no need to expand the concealed-carry laws. He declined to say how he would react to a bill that involved minor tinkering with the law. But any broad-based legalization of concealed weapons is unacceptable, he said.

"I'll veto it," Holden said flatly. "The people of Missouri have spoken on that issue. If (lawmakers) want to put it to a public vote again, that's up to them."

Crump, who led the fight to put a concealed-weapons proposition on the ballot, said another statewide campaign is unlikely. The National Rifle Association, which spent nearly $4 million in a losing effort three years ago, doesn't want to finance another campaign, Crump said.

That leaves the fight to the General Assembly, where the issue is mired in regional and partisan politics. But the issue continues to smolder year after year because concealed guns remain one of the most emotional and divisive issues in the state.

Missouri has banned the carrying of concealed weapons since 1875. But efforts to change the law sprang up in the early 1990s, soon after the NRA made the carrying of firearms a national priority.

Gun rights advocates were stymied by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, who threatened to veto a concealed-weapons bill. So supporters decided to bypass the governor by sending the proposal to a public vote in April 1999.

Supporters argued that carrying guns would reduce crime, allow women to defend themselves against stronger attackers and make people feel safer.

Opponents contended the law would lead to bystanders getting shot and would result in minor disputes escalating into shootings. More guns would mean more violence on the streets, they said. [Ed. Without any empirical data to support that contention.  The experiences of the majority of the other states who trust their citizens with concealed carry flatly destroy those lies.]

The proposition failed by 44,000 votes, 52 percent to 48 percent. Urban voters opposed the bill nearly 2-to-1; rural voters supported it 3-to-2.

The vote breakdown creates problems for both parties. Rural Democrats have been stung by their party's support for controls on guns. Republicans have been quick to exploit that fact in outstate Missouri.

Many Missouri politicians cite the gun issue as a big reason Democrat Al Gore lost Missouri in the 2000 presidential election. And gun rights emerged as a key issue in the January 2001 special election that put Republican John Cauthorn of Mexico in the Missouri Senate.

Cauthorn's victory gave Republicans control of the chamber for the first time since 1948.

But the issue also creates problems for Republican lawmakers from suburban areas. Crump said some Republicans from St. Louis County who otherwise would support concealed-weapons legislation saw more than 70 percent of the voters in their districts oppose it in 1999. Republicans from those districts would prefer that the issue just go away, he said.

It won't go away, however, because so many constituents in rural areas still clamor for it, Crump said.

Crump is one of four lawmakers who have introduced bills that would allow the public to carry concealed guns. The four proposals take similar approaches. They would require sheriffs to issue gun permits to any qualified person. Applicants would have to be briefly trained in the handling of firearms and in the law.

The bills would prohibit giving permits to drug abusers, people convicted of serious crimes and people found mentally incompetent.

All four bills place limits on where the guns could be taken. Permit holders would be prohibited from carrying guns into churches, large sports arenas, courthouses and governmental meetings without permission from authorities. Building owners could post notices that concealed weapons are prohibited inside.

However, permit holders who are members of governmental bodies, including members of the General Assembly and local city councils, could carry concealed weapons into meetings.

Crump and Rep. Chuck Purgason, a Caulfield Republican, said many of the restrictions in their bills are designed to answer criticisms leveled by opponents during legislative hearings last year and during the 1999 campaign.

But critics question the need to overturn the will of the voters. They said that the changes since 1999 are mostly cosmetic, and that some provisions remain dangerous, or just goofy.

Sen. Ronnie DePasco, a Kansas City Democrat, said he would vote against any bill that would legalize concealed weapons. He said the provision that would allow lawmakers to carry guns during floor debate was ludicrous.

"Being a politician is one thing," DePasco said. "But being a politician with a gun is just crazy."

House Speaker Jim Kreider, a Nixa Democrat and gun rights advocate, predicted that some kind of concealed-weapons bill would pass the House. Current law puts rural residents who carry guns for protection in a bind.

"A lot of representatives say it's their constitutional right," Kreider said. "I think it promotes safety and it reduces crime. And I would like for law-abiding citizens not to have to break the law."

But Kreider acknowledged that the state's budget problems relegate concealed weapons to a second-tier issue. And Holden's promise to veto a concealed-weapons bill also hurts its chances because few lawmakers like to challenge the governor.

Crump agreed, saying he doubted that either the House or the Senate could muster a two-thirds majority to override a veto. He said he didn't relish the idea of challenging a governor of his own party. But he said his loyalty to his constituents came before his duties as House majority leader.

A veto also carries risks for Holden. The legislature has overridden a veto only seven times in state history. A successful override would be an embarrassment to a governor already beset by a troubled economy and a Republican-controlled Senate.

As a compromise measure, Crump introduced a second bill that would allow people to conceal weapons within their vehicles.

Such a law would allow people to transport guns under a seat or in their glove compartment. Current law allows residents of other states who are peacefully driving through Missouri to hide guns within their vehicles, Crump said. The state should give Missourians at least the same right, he said.

Crump said 85 percent of his constituents who want the right to carry a concealed weapon would be satisfied if they could keep the gun concealed in the passenger compartment of their car or truck.

To reach Kit Wagar, Jefferson City correspondent, call (816) 234-4440 or send e-mail to kwagar@kcstar.com.