Locked and Loaded

March 15, 2018

A look into St. Louis and Missouri’s gun culture and ongoing political debate.

I. Introduction

Jessica Coleman had a one-month old baby when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut left 26 young children and teachers dead in 2012. Coleman sat sobbing, feeding her daughter while watching the coverage of the massacre.

“I looked down at her, and I’ve always been concerned about gun violence — it’s something that’s always bugged me — but when that happened I thought: we just allowed 7-year-old children to get massacred in their school where they should feel safe. And then I watched Congress do nothing about it,” Coleman said.

Desperate to get politicians working to end such gun violence, Coleman came across Moms Demand Action, a national gun control organization founded in 2012 in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. Three years after attending meetings and getting further involved, Coleman became the leader of the St. Louis chapter of the organization.

Although the Newtown tragedy drew her to Moms Demand Action, Coleman’s passion for gun-control advocacy also has local roots.

“Sandy Hook was what got me involved, what keeps me involved is all these mass shootings that we’re seeing, but then also St. Louis. I live in the City of St. Louis and there’s a horrible gun violence epidemic,” Coleman said. “There’s a Sandy Hook in St. Louis every week for a lot of families. I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s the mass shootings which get all the news coverage, but the day to day drumbeat of gun violence, especially in places like St. Louis, is really devastating.”

Coleman continues to hold the reins of the St. Louis chapter with her co-lead, fighting not only for national political action but also change at the state and local levels. However, even with high rates of gun violence in St. Louis and Missouri, and of course, across the nation, gun control remains a controversial and divisive issue.

II. Nation and State

On Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, a 19 year-old ex-student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. According to Everytown for Gun Safey, it is the 18th school shooting in the U.S. since the advent of 2018 and the 2nd deadliest school shooting ever.

For CHS senior Sol Kwon, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was around 5-years-of-age, school shootings like this were a major concern for his parents.

“My mom and dad were very worried about the fact that somebody could just take a gun from the local store and then just use it to shoot anybody with,” Kwon said.

These loose restrictions around gun ownership and the prevalence of American gun violence in newspaper headlines stood in contrast to what Kwon experienced in Korea, and he even noticed this on vacations back in his country of origin.

“When I went back [to South Korea] from time to time, I was rather surprised that there were no reports at all regarding guns even regarding if there’s any murders or suicides that were covered in the national news or local news. Mostly they were not really gun related. I think that was a huge difference that we saw between there and America. [Gun violence] wasn’t really much of an issue,” Kwon said.

Guns are not completely outlawed in South Korea, according to Kwon. Still, the culture and level of restriction on gun usage varies greatly from the American model.

“Some people do actually use guns for hunting and sport, which there isn’t really much in Korea because it’s a really densely populated country. But in such cases like hunting and sport you need to have a special permit for that. And even if you do get that permit for the guns, they are usually kept safely in the local police station,” Kwon said.

According to GunPolicy.org, a global firearm policy and prevention database hosted by the University of Sydney’s Sydney School of Public Health, Korea only had 23 gun deaths in the entire nation in 2012 which amounted to 0.0 gun deaths per 100,000 people. In the same year, the United States had a total of 33,563 gun deaths which is equivalent to 10.69 gun deaths per 100,000 people.

While, as Kwon stated, guns are not fully outlawed in Korea, semiautomatic and automatic weapons are banned. This stands in stark contrast to the gun policies of the United States where the restrictions on automatic and semiautomatic weapons ranges from state to state. These powerful weapons tend to be the ones seen in mass shootings.

From Newton to San Bernardino to Vegas to Parkland, one semi-automatic model dominates them all: the AR-15. Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Florida massacre, obtained his AR-15 legally — the semi-automatic rifles were only banned nationally from 1994 to 2004 and present Florida laws are quite lenient allowing easy purchase of the firearms. In fact, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy organization, gave Florida an “F” rating for its lax gun laws.

However, in the same annual “Gun Law State Scorecard,” Florida was not listed as one of the ten states with the highest rates of gun deaths. Rather, Alabama, Alaska, South Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Missouri made the list.

The openness of Missouri’s gun laws began in 2007 when lawmakers in Jefferson City repealed the permit-to-purchase handgun law which required those seeking to buy a gun to undergo a background check by national or state law enforcement agencies in order to receive a permit allowing this transaction.

“Since that time, our legislature has chipped away at our gun laws with things like open carry and the thing that came in January which was permitless carry and stand your ground, which Governor Nixon had vetoed but they overrode it and that basically eliminated permit and training requirements to carry guns,” Coleman said. “While that hasn’t been explicitly studied yet, we can see that homicide rates have increased, gun assault rates have increased, carjacking rates have increased, thefts have increased so you can’t help but think that the cities are kind of suffering because of what the state legislature is doing.”

Despite the effects of the newest policies loosening gun restrictions not having been studied, the 2007 repeal of permit-to-carry was. In 2013, a study was published by the Center for Gun Policy and Research in the John Hopkins School of Public Health detailing the spike in firearm homicides after a full year of the nonexistence of permit-to-purchase.

According to the study, Missouri’s firearm murder rate remained relatively constant, around 4.66 deaths per 100,000 people per year. After a year of no permit-to-purchase in 2008, the gun homicide rate increased from 4.66 to 6.23 per 100,000 people which was a 34% increase from the original average. This change did not adhere to any national or regional trends, only applying to the state of Missouri.

Such data and the increasing homicide rates have brought gun policy to the forefront of Missouri politics.

Currently there are more than 20 firearm bills proposed by both republicans and democrats in Missouri congress. While the few republican bills are attempting to further remove firearm restrictions, the majority of the proposals are by democrats representing the two main cities in Missouri — St. Louis and Kansas City — trying to pass gun control laws. However, Coleman believes that the gun lobby’s influence in Jefferson City will prevent any of these bills from becoming laws.

“We have a supermajority in the GOP and the gun lobby is just really entrenched there: they write these gun bills and then if they get to the floor for a vote, they pass because the National Rifle Association (NRA) is threatening and they will say ‘we’ll come after you if you don’t vote our way,’” Coleman said. “In private we’ve even had legislators tell us ‘I don’t want to vote for this bill but I have to,’ which isn’t how government is supposed to be run.”

The infiltration of the NRA in Missouri politics is evident through the NRA backing of Missouri senator Roy Blunt. Blunt has received $4,551,146 from the NRA — for donations or to help his campaigns — according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

Moms Demand Action, as a nonpartisan organization, is attempting to alter this status quo by connecting with republican members as well.

“We do have republican members here in Missouri and across the nation [although] we don’t have any republican politicians interested in joining us. We are not anti-seocnd amendment and we don’t want to take away anyone’s guns unless you’re a criminal or domestic abuser. We think [gun violence prevention] should be a bipartisan issue because it really already is,” Coleman said.

Especially in states like Missouri with a large rural population, the organization also is attempting to reach out to those communities whose representatives tend to be the ones following NRA interests.

“Our goal is to get as many people involved in the state as we can because a lot of legislators that sponsor what we call bad gun bills are from those rural areas so they really need to hear from people in there districts. People from St. Louis — our voices might not be as meaningful to those legislators as people in their districts,” Coleman said. “I think there’s this misconception across Missouri that everybody in rural areas is against common sense gun laws which we’ve really found is not the case.”

III. Urban and Rural

For Missouri House District 87 Representative Stacey Newman, who represents Clayton, gun violence prevention has been a major focus of her work in Missouri Congress and Newman has sponsored various gun control bills. The 2018 session will be Newman’s last session after 8 years of representing District 87 in the Missouri house; however, Newman seeks to pass on the torch of firearm control policies to Ian Mackey, who Newman has officially endorsed.

After growing up in Hickory County, Mackey recognizes the need to address the differences in opinion between urban and rural residents of Missouri.

“We’re a big state, and the places we live are very different. Gun violence is not an issue in Hickory County, gun violence is not an issue in Barry County, and certainly not to the extent that it is here, so we ought to be able to have local laws, and local enforcement mechanisms that allow us to address the issue as a region, particularly the city as a city,” Mackey said. “That doesn’t mean that Hickory County and Barry County and other parts of rural Missouri have to enact the same laws, because they don’t struggle with the issue the way we do.”

CHS student Aaron* also believes that urban and rural areas should have different gun laws. As an avid hunter, Aaron appreciates the freedom to use guns due to the fun memories he has from hunting with his father. Still, Aaron feels that the dynamics of an area should determine the gun laws in that area.

“It depends on where you are. Even in the United States, some places like the bigger cities like New York, they have stricter gun laws, which they should because they have more people and there is no where to hunt in New York City. So, I think there should be stronger gun laws there. But, in Missouri or in other rural places, it is okay to have lenient gun laws,” Aaron said.

Kansas City and St. Louis are the two urban centers of Missouri. According to the St. Louis Police Department, there were 205 homicides in St. Louis in 2017 and there have already been 22 in 2018. Coleman believes that such high levels of gun homicides in the cities is a product of the lax state laws.

“Both [St. Louis] and Kansas City are two similar cities in the state and we’re both seeing gun homicide increasing so relating back to the state laws makes sense to me,” Coleman said.

Mackey is adamant that Missouri putting gun policy in the hands of local governments will be a powerful solution to urban violence.

“We don’t need Jeff City to pass bills to help us, we don’t need to convince everyone in rural Missouri that we need a specific piece of legislation or a specific bill. It would be great if we had the numbers, but we don’t, so rather than do that, it’s trying to get them to take their own advice that government works best when it’s local, big state and federal government is best when it’s small,” Mackey said. “So go ahead and be a small government and step back and let St. Louis create its own policy. That’s really where we stand the most to gain.”

IV. Guns and Teenagers

According to a survey handed out to 150 randomly selected CHS students, 40.9% have some sort of firearm owned by their family. For CHS senior Jane*, owning guns is a part of her family’s lifestyle, and she is strongly against a ban on all guns.

“My family uses them for hunting, we’ve done that ever since my dad was little when he shot his first deer, and it’s just an activity we do on the weekends, and there’s shooting practice,” Jane said. “People enjoy guns not just to kill other people, actually a lot people who own guns don’t want to use them to kill other people; they want to use them to protect themselves, go hunting, do another recreational activity, or just have them in their house in case there’s like an armed robber or something.”

However, 77.6% of the CHS students surveyed do support increasing restrictions on gun availability and the types of guns available. Jane also believes that fully automatic guns should not be in the hands of ordinary citizens and recognizes the concern over semi-automatic weapons.

“I don’t see a reason for them to own [any automatic weapon], because you don’t use to go hunting, you don’t use it for shooting practice, it’s a bit unnecessary during a home defense since a shotgun would probably work, a rifle would probably work for home defense,” Jane said. “I know there’s a big problem with semi-automatic rifles. People are using bump-stocks on semi-automatic rifles, which kind of cause the rifle to become more automatic.”

After yet another semiautomatic weapon took the lives of high schoolers in Florida, high school students across the nation are planning to raise their voices in support of increased gun restrictions and against the special interests of the gun lobby.

The Women’s March Youth has organized a national school walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14 for 17 minutes in remembrance of the 17 lives lost in Florida. The survivors of the Florida school shooting are also holding the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C. on March 24 and sister marches are being hold in solidarity across the country.

Coleman affirms that the voices of the youth can make a big difference in pushing legislature to pass gun control policies.

“I hope that kids reading this understand that your vote, especially in a state like this, is so important because we need to vote out people who are only working on behalf of special interests and also refuse to listen to constituents and refuse to look at what Missourians want over a gun lobby that’s too entrenched, in my opinion, in our legislature,” Coleman said.

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