When Missouri voters go to the polls in August, they will face a seemingly innocuous question: “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?” Based on this description, it’s not at all clear that this amendment does anything at all. After all, both the Second Amendment and a provision of Missouri’s existing constitution protect the right “to keep and bear arms.” And the Supreme Court already held in McDonald v. Chicago that Missouri is obligated to comply with the Second Amendment.
But, while the text of this ballot question suggests that a “yes” vote will do nothing more than reaffirm principles that are already in the law, the reality is quite different. If this amendment passes, it will turn Missouri into a virtual free-for-all for firearms.
If this amendment passes, it will make several changes to the state constitution. The actual amendment does not simply restate existing rights. It expands gun rights in Missouri to apply to “ammunition, and accessories typical to the normal function of such arms.” It deletes language from the state constitution providing that the right to bear arms “shall not justify the wearing of concealed weapons.” And, perhaps most significantly of all, it provides that any law that touches upon the right to bear arms in Missouri must survive “strict scrutiny,” the most difficult test that exists under American constitutional law in order to avoid being struck down by the courts.
As a sign of what could happen if this Missouri amendment is approved by voters, Louisiana voters ratified a similar amendment in 2012. Shortly before this Louisiana amendment was ratified, the district attorney for New Orleans warned that it would “place in extreme constitutional jeopardy criminal laws that require a permit to carry a concealed weapon . . . and prohibit the possession of firearms on elementary and high school campuses.”
The Missouri amendment does contain two limiting provisions that Louisiana’s did not — it permits laws preventing gun possession by “convicted violent felons” and “those adjudicated by a court to be a danger to self or others as a result of a mental disorder or mental infirmity,” But even this limiting language suggests that gun rights must be interpreted expansively, since non-violent felons, violent individuals who were only convicted of misdemeanors, and people who present a danger to others but have not been adjudicated as such by a court are not covered by this limiting language.
The amendment, in other words, does a whole lot more than offer 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;” it significantly expands gun rights in Missouri, almost to the degree Louisiana’s 2012 amendment expanded gun rights in that state. Meanwhile according to the Violence Policy Center, Louisiana has the highest rate of firearm-related deaths in the nation.
The misleading ballot language was set by a resolution of the Missouri state legislature proposing this constitutional amendment. That resolution enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm, who asked their members to contact state lawmakers to urge them to vote for it.
But the ballot language set by this NRA-backed resolution also is not set in stone. Missouri law provides that “[a]ny citizen who wishes to challenge the official ballot title or the fiscal note prepared for a proposed constitutional amendment . . . may bring an action in the circuit court of Cole County.” Such a lawsuit is currently pending in that court. One of the plaintiffs is St. Louis Police Chief Samuel Dotson.