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Missouri Supreme Court weighs law against federal gun rules

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Supreme Court judges heard on Monday arguments in a lawsuit seeking to strike down a new state law barring local police from enforcing federal gun laws.

A lawyer for St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County — which sued to overturn the law — asked judges to rule that the law is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers and to toss it out. Robert Dierker, deputy St. Louis city counselor, took issue before the state’s highest court with the Second Amendment Preservation Act, also called SAPA. He called it the “Separation of Powers Destruction Act” and said the law was “unintelligible” about which federal firearms laws Missouri police can or cannot enforce.

The law, passed last year by the GOP-led Legislature, declares “invalid” many federal gun regulations that have no equivalent in Missouri law. These include statutes covering weapons registration and tracking, and possession of firearms by some domestic violence offenders.

Local departments are barred from enforcing them, or risk being sued for $50,000 by private citizens who believe their Second Amendment rights have been violated.

“I would say that the separation of power problems looms very large in this case,” Dierker said. “The plain language of the statute says that a range of ill defined — indeed undefined — federal laws regulations infringe the Second Amendment and will not be enforced in Missouri.”

Dierker said SAPA violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from interfering with the government’s enforcement of constitutional powers.

The Justice Department has said that the Missouri state crime lab, operated by the Highway Patrol, is refusing to process evidence that would help federal firearms prosecutions because of the law, and the Highway Patrol, along with many other agencies, have suspended joint efforts to enforce federal firearms laws.

Judge Brent Powell questioned whether there’s any legal issue with pulling Missouri law enforcement from those federal programs.

“Isn’t it up to the General Assembly?” Powell asked Dierker. “They can decide if the state of Missouri will participate in these types of programs.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the law, argued that critics failed to take the right procedural steps in their lawsuit.

Solicitor General John Sauer told judges that a lower court should weigh in on the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court rules on the merits of the case. He also argued that the plaintiffs should have asked a lower court to rule on which federal gun laws cannot be enforced by local police if there’s so much confusion about it.

“They’re asking things that are extraordinary departures from this court’s jurisprudence again and again and again,” Sauer said. “The natural way to go forward would be just to remand it to the trial court to consider the constitutional issues.”

Dierker argued sending the decision back to a lower court would create multiple inconsistent rulings that don’t address the constitutionality of the law.

Sauer added there are currently five lawsuits challenging the law, each of which could serve as avenues to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

Both the federal government and local Missouri law enforcement have criticized the law as hampering their response to crime.

“We are reaching out our hand in cooperation to the state and local agencies that have worked with us, because we want to work together to solve the problem of violent crime in this state,” Jeffrey Sandberg, a lawyer for the U.S. government, said during arguments. “But we are running into problems where there are people who want to cooperate with us, but they are mindful that they are making judgments on the spot about what would potentially put their agency’s budget at risk.”

In a separate case filed by the St. Louis suburb of Arnold, 60 police chiefs hope to have the law clarified. In a brief supporting Arnold’s lawsuit, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Organization argued the law puts law enforcement at risk of facing lawsuits for working with federal partners.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said in a brief that since SAPA went into effect, more than 12 law enforcement agencies in Missouri have ended partnerships with the bureau.

Departments such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol have stopped participating in some investigations and no longer add information to national databases used to solve crimes.

That’s because police worry that cooperating with federal law enforcement could land them in court, Dierker said.

“The problem is that the plaintiffs’ law enforcement employees regularly participate with the federal government in attempting to suppress illegal firearms and other illegal criminal activity in which firearms are inevitably associated,” Dierker said.

The court did not indicate when a decision might be made on the case.

The Associated Press and The Missouri Independent contributed to this report.

Staff is home to The NorthSider and The SouthSider weekly community newspapers. The SouthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Tuesday. The NorthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Thursday. They are distributed at over 600 locations across St. Louis.

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