Justice Dept. Says Missouri’s Gun Law Hobbles Drug and Weapons Investigations
The law does not go into effect until Aug. 28, but it has already had a serious chilling effect on cooperation between local and federal authorities, agents say.,
A new state law in Missouri that prevents local law enforcement from working with federal agents on gun cases is already hampering joint drug and weapons investigations, the Justice Department said in a court document filed Wednesday that was obtained by The New York Times.
The Second Amendment Preservation Act, which was passed by Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature in May, is among the most extreme state gun rights bills enacted in recent years, imposing a $50,000 penalty on any local sheriff’s office or police department that “tries to enforce” federal firearms laws instead of abiding by less restrictive state statutes.
The law does not go into effect until Aug. 28, but it has already had a serious chilling effect on cooperation between local and federal authorities, according to testimony from federal agents included in a document filed to support an effort by the City of St. Louis to strike down the law in state court.
The Missouri law, known as HB85, “has caused, and will continue to cause, significant harms to law enforcement within the State of Missouri,” wrote Brian M. Boynton, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division, along with the two top federal prosecutors in the state.
“HB85 undermines law enforcement activities in Missouri, including valuable partnerships federal agencies have developed with state and local jurisdictions,” they added. “It is also plainly unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause.”
While the document, known as a “statement of interest of the United States,” makes it clear that the department is not joining the state court suit, similar filings have been used in the past to lay out the legal and constitutional arguments in preparation for federal cases.
The 37-page filing lays out a detailed argument that Missouri’s law is an attempt to “nullify” the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which prohibits states from enacting laws that contradict federal statutes, with citations referring to two centuries of constitutional case law.
The bill’s supporters, including Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, have argued that the new law is constitutional and does not prohibit federal agents from operating in their state. They have argued it only blocks state and local law enforcement officials from working on such cases without explicit proof that their actions will not contribute to the confiscation of guns from law-abiding citizens.
State officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new federal filing.
But some sheriffs, including several from the deeply conservative southern part of the state, have said the law makes their work harder, and one local police chief in O’Fallon, a St. Louis suburb, resigned rather than having to enforce a law that would allow “individual police officers to be sued for even good-faith, justified seizures of firearms.”
In a statement accompanying the court filing, Frederic D. Winston, the special agent in charge of the Kansas City field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, documented serious problems that have already emerged as local law enforcement agencies prepare for the law to go into effect.
Nearly a quarter of state and local enforcement officials who work directly with A.T.F. — 12 of 53 officers — have withdrawn from joint collaborations, he said.
In addition, state and local agencies have begun to restrict federal access to investigative resources they have historically shared with federal partners, including the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state crime database, and the Kansas City Police Department’s records system.
“These reductions in human resources have hindered A.T.F.’s abilities to effectively pursue the enforcement of federal law against criminals, including violent criminals” by limiting “access to crime-related data, police reports, investigative records,” Mr. Boynton wrote.
The effect is also being felt by other federal law enforcement agencies operating in Missouri, including the F.B.I., the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, he added.
Mr. Boynton said local officials are also being hampered by the new law.
In Columbia, home to the University of Missouri, the police department has blocked access to a vital national ballistics system used to trace guns used in crimes, even though the system generated more than 6,000 leads for local enforcement agencies over the past three years.
A call to a department spokesman was not immediately returned.