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The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

The first extra session of the Missouri General Assembly skirts around the topic of lethal violence.

It was the elephant in the room during the first extra session of the Missouri General Assembly in September.

While Governor Mike Parson had summoned lawmakers back to the state capitol to deal with an automobile sales tax issue, the not-so-out-of-mind subject on the minds of many was the explosion of lethal violence, most of it involving guns and with a sadly large number of incidents involving children in the state’s urban centers.

“We’ve had way too many kids that hadn’t even made it to their 10th birthdays getting shot on the streets for just playing on the sidewalk,” Parson told reporters following a meeting with federal law enforcement officials in late August.

Parson had resisted demands that the issue be included in the call for the special session. Lawmakers from St. Louis and Kansas City argued the deadly violence — some 240 cases between those two cities at the time of the session — was much more of an emergency than the sales tax matter and needed to be addressed immediately. But with per diem expenses running in the thousands of dollars, special sessions can be costly if the outcome is not worked out ahead of time. Parson countered that there was no way to resolve the violence issue within the few days it took to change the tax law.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel the heat.

In the senate, where members can be recognized at almost any time to speak about almost anything, St. Louis Democrat Jamilah Nasheed took advantage of a midweek lull to express her emotion and frustration over the situation back home.

“I speak for those who don’t have a voice,” Nasheed began. “They have been silenced by gun violence, silenced by crime. Make no mistake about it: the gun violence in Missouri, and especially in St. Louis, is a public health crisis.”

Nasheed cited statistics that seemed to put St. Louis and Kansas City in a frightening race for record levels of deadly violence this year. And lest her rural colleagues be inclined to tune her out, she pointed to the rising number of firearm suicides in their home areas, episodes in which the victims overwhelmingly are young adult white males.

For those still not moved by the human cost, Nasheed emphasized the economic impact of gun violence in Missouri — $98 million in annual health care costs, $159 million in law enforcement and criminal justice expenses, $12 million in losses to employers, and $1.7 billion in lost income to workers, according to the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which ranks Missouri seventh among all states for gun deaths.

“People are afraid to come downtown to the city of St. Louis to watch a ballgame,” Nasheed asserted. “They are afraid to hang out at the Ballpark Village [in downtown St. Louis] because they fear for their lives.” 

By the time the special legislative session ended September 13, the 2019 death toll for children under 17 in the metro St. Louis area had reached 23 and topped a dozen within the city itself. By then, Parson had met with members of the Missouri’s Legislative Black Caucus once and local officials in the Gateway City twice.

“Today, we talked about a number of things,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson told reporters following one closed-door meeting. “We talked about them in three categories: in manpower, in equipment, and in technology. And it takes all of those things today to have an effective policing strategy.”

By late September, the governor was ready with a plan. The state would pump $4 million into a program that supplemented the staffs of various federal task forces on crime with members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Parson said $2 million was committed to crime victims.

“We know we have a serious problem with violent crime that must be addressed,” the governor told reporters in announcing the plan. “We have spent the past months meeting with leaders and organizations at all levels to better understand the issues and discuss possible solutions.”

The Parson plan does not target violence problems in Kansas City. Gun control advocates were less than impressed.

“A major factor in Missouri’s gun violence crisis is that too many guns are in the hands of too many people who shouldn’t have them,” observed Springfield Democrat Crystal Quade, the minority party floor leader in the Missouri House of Representatives. “I fear it will end up being little more than a public relations campaign that produces few, if any, tangible results.”

In general terms, Parson has maintained that education and jobs are the ultimate cure for gun violence, and that’s where his priorities still lie. He has promised to protect Second Amendment rights and said any gun control initiatives must originate with the legislature. And while that does not sound very likely, the growing number of gun violence victims in Missouri has even the most conservative lawmakers in Jefferson City exhibiting a “we probably need to do something” posture.

As a result, one might expect a big push next year from gun control advocates for major reforms, such as a ban on high-powered firearms and ammunition, an expansion of background checks to include all gun sales, and so-called “red flag” laws to identify people with a disqualifying marker that would require them to surrender their guns and/or their right to have firearms.

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