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Department of Justice sues Missouri over gun rights law

Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a 2021 photo, said a Missouri gun rights law impedes law enforcement in the state. The Department of Justice sued Wednesday to enjoin the law.
Patrick Semansky
Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a 2021 photo, said a Missouri gun rights law impedes law enforcement in the state. The Department of Justice sued Wednesday to enjoin the law.

The Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to block a Missouri law that allows private citizens to sue law enforcement agencies and officers for $50,000 if they can show their state gun rights were infringed upon. Gov. Mike Parson signed the Second Amendment Preservation Act last year, and since then, counties, cities and dozens of Missouri police chiefs have challenged it.

The law, known as H.B. 85, invalidates in Missouri five specific federal gun law categories, such as ones prohibiting the gun ownership by some felons, confiscation orders, and registration laws.

The complaintfiled in federal court in Jefferson City, Mo., on Wednesday says "the overall purpose and effect of H.B. 85 are thus to nullify federal firearm laws and to affirmatively interfere with their enforcement."

"This act impedes criminal law enforcement operations in Missouri," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The United States will work to ensure that our state and local law enforcement partners are not penalized for doing their jobs to keep our communities safe."

Federal law enforcement agencies often deputize local law enforcement, granting them authority to enforce federal laws. The complaint alleges that H.B. 85 hinders that cooperation and endangers public safety. It lays out examples of successful partnerships, such as the Columbia Violent Crimes Task Force, that the Department of Justice says resulted in the recovery of 55 guns from people prohibited from owning them under federal law and 35 arrests of people for violation of state law.

Critics of the law within Missouri have sued to overturn it. A case brought by St. Louis and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, made their case before the state supreme court last week. The complaint says more than 60 "Missouri law enforcement officials have filed affidavits confirming that H.B. 85 has hindered law enforcement's ability to defend and protect Missouri citizens." Those affidavits are in support of a challenge to the law filed by Arnold, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.

"It has a very severe effect, an incredibly severe effect," Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas told NPR. "Registering firearms, we find, into a federal database is something that more law enforcement departments in Kansas City and Missouri are avoiding."

Member station KCUR reports that more than 12 local law agencies have ended partnerships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running in the Republican primary for an open Senate seat, said he'd challenge the suit.

"Time and again, the Biden administration has put partisan politics ahead of public safety. Make no mistake, the law is on our side in this case, and I intend to beat the Biden administration in court," he said in a statement.

Parson, who noted at the bill signing in June that he was once a sheriff, framed the law as a tool for the state to stand up to the federal government.

"It's time to take a stance to protect the Constitution, protect the bill of rights," Parson said at the time.

But the complaint alleges the law violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. "A state cannot simply declare federal laws invalid," said Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division. "This act makes enforcement of federal firearms laws difficult and strains the important law enforcement partnerships that help keep violent criminals off the street."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Granitz