Debate over minors carrying guns has implications beyond the Missouri House

February 27, 2023 5:45 am

State Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, speaks on the House floor during the 2022 session (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

State Rep. Lane Roberts is not someone most would deem a “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only.

The three-term Joplin Republican served as the director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety and as Joplin’s police chief, having previously led police forces in cities throughout Washington and Oregon, where he served as president of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police. 

In 2013, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association named him Chief of the Year.

I once asked  Roberts if he supported “compassionate release” legislation to free elderly inmates, given their low likelihood of recidivism due to “aging out” of criminal tendencies. No way, he replied. 

“Look, I’m 75 years old and trust me, you don’t want to bump into me in a dark alley,” he said. “So no, age shouldn’t be the sole determinant of whether someone is a threat.”

Which is to say: The guy’s tough as nails, and not easily caricatured as weak. If being conservative means “Backing The Blue,” it doesn’t get much bluer than him.

But perhaps, we must reckon with a new normal.

Earlier this month, the Missouri Firearms Coalition, which bills itself as a far more aggressive, “no-compromise” offshoot of the NRA, derided Roberts as a gun-grabbing RINO based on two components of a crime bill he’s sponsoring. 

The organization is led by brothers — Aaron, Chris, and Ben Dorr — who many long-time gun rights activists have called “charlatans.” “The NRA is selling you out!” the organization claims. “Every single time the government has a registration of firearms, genocide happens!”

As one in-depth investigative series delving into the roots and tactics the Missouri Firearms Coalition observed, “The NRA is struggling, and there are plenty of pro-gun groups eager to fill any real or perceived power vacuum.” 

The genesis of Roberts’ crime bill was a House leadership-appointed bipartisan working group charged last fall with addressing public safety challenges. The working group unanimously endorsed six reforms that they agreed would reduce crime around the state.

One section of the bill the Missouri Firearms Coalition excoriated was its requirement that ammunition sellers register with the Secretary of State. They contended that the Roberts proposal would criminalize a man who gives a box of ammo to his brother or son. In reality, it dealt with sales from unlicensed dealers. 

The Missouri Firearms Coalition also attacked a second section, which sought to prevent unsupervised minors from openly carrying guns in public roadways. Some committee Republicans did not realize that current statute allows this. 

“It’s not against the law, sir … for a 10-year-old kid to walk around with a — with a pistol in their pants?” asked one lawmaker during a recent House hearing, according to the Post-Dispatch’s Jack Suntrup.

Indeed it is not, Roberts acknowledged in response. 

“Missouri is pretty fanatical in our defense of the Second Amendment,” he noted, “but this kind of conduct is not what the Second Amendment was meant to protect. This is about people who don’t have the life experience to make a decision about the consequences of having that gun in their possession. Why is an 8-year-old carrying a sidearm in the street?” 

Committee Republicans voted to strip the above sections out of the bill.

Democratic Rep. Donna Baringer offered a floor amendment to re-insert a narrowed version of the section to prohibit unsupervised minors from carrying, on public property, handguns readily capable of discharge. The amendment, which Roberts designed to mollify his caucus’s many sportsmen and women by limiting it to armed children whose firearm is not otherwise legally allowed (those 11 or older may hunt by themselves after completing a hunter education class), failed 104-39, on a near-party line vote. 

It may have been possible at some earlier juncture to carefully craft language capable of winning over enough Republicans to cobble together a majority – and there may still be a way to do so, perhaps in a Senate committee or floor sub – but given the broader political dynamics, there was no way a House Democrat offering a high-profile floor amendment on guns would prevail.

I’ve previously written about the implications of Missouri becoming a red state, most recently when I noted that U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt felt no need to even feign a traditional general election pivot towards the political middle.

Our general election non-competitiveness could, paradoxically, be the one thing that could make the state more competitive again in the coming election cycles.

That’s because the notion that Republican dominance is sacrosanct may lead the legislature to pass laws that appeal to interest groups like the Missouri Firearms Coalition that wield outsized sway in primaries, but repel the median general election voter.

In a recent survey from the University of Chicago’s respected National Opinion Research Center, nearly 80% of survey respondents endorsed banning minors’ access to handguns. 

Over the weekend, a survey commissioned by Missouri Scout and conducted by the GOP polling firm Remington Research Group found 73% of respondents believe it should be illegal for an unaccompanied minor to possess a firearm on public property. Only 16% disagree. 

Taking the 16% side of 73-16 issues is not an ideal way to safeguard supermajorities.

Missouri Democrats certainly have their own unpopular party planks that are disliked by solid majorities of voters. But with Republican hegemony in Jefferson City, Republican positions are more salient, since fewer Democratic positions reach the Capitol agenda.

The Missouri Firearms Coalition is rightfully feared as a force in Republican primaries. 

Especially during Democratic presidential administrations, gun rights activists are often ready to mobilize at the drop of a hat. We saw this most powerfully when former Gov. Eric Greitens dared to cross them by siding with law enforcement groups who cited 2021’s Second Amendment Preservation Act as a hindrance to enforcement of federal gun laws. Within days, even Greitens – whose modus operandi was to double down instead of admitting weakness or mistakes – buckled under pressure and reversed himself after receiving blowback from the Coalition in the form of a blistering 17-minute video

But there is recent precedent for interest group overreach.

Over the course of the last decade, despite Missouri Right to Life’s (MRL) continued grassroots strength (as demonstrated by 2022 state Senate primaries), many legislators began disregarding their urgent pleas. Once the Republican Party’s most feared interest group, MRL eventually strayed into so many disparate issues – from their rating of votes on the state Medicaid program’s Federal Reimbursement Allowance (where the MRL position could have cost the state billions of dollars annually) to the vote on a 7-1 congressional map – that legislative leaders began to dismiss their litmus tests, because they found MRL’s positions substantively extreme and/or politically damaging.

Will the Missouri Firearms Coalition encounter similar treatment if they continue to find themselves at odds with state law enforcement officer associations on issues like SAPA and this session’s crime bill? It’s too early to say.

One of the Capitol’s smartest Republicans likes to say that the difference between good policy and bad policy often comes down to a dozen difficult conversations. 

That is to say: The legislature will make good policy if every key legislator in a given policy realm is willing to go back to their district and have a dozen tough conversations with constituents in the grocery store or coffee shop, most of whom they’ll be able to convince if they take a few minutes to dissect the hyperbolic arguments of interest groups thirsty for clicks, donations, and relevance.

By May, we’ll have a better sense of the legislature’s collective appetite for such conversations.

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.