St. Louis prosecutors argued to the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday that a recent amendment to the state constitution making the right to bear arms “unalienable” doesn’t mean some felons now have the right to carry guns.
The judges were hearing arguments on three cases that are just the most recent in a series of constitutional challenges to a ban on felons possessing firearms, spurred by the 2014 constitutional amendment. Voters approved the “unalienable” wording and making restrictions subject to strict scrutiny, though the amendment specified that lawmakers can limit the rights of “violent” felons.
That’s led to confusion about what the change means for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.
The latest cases before the state’s highest court center on felons convicted of either unlawful use of a weapon or stealing. They later were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm — but judges in the Circuit Court of the city of St. Louis dismissed those charges in all three cases, saying they were unconstitutional.
St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Aaron Levinson said although the Missouri Constitution now specifically says that limits on violent felons are allowed, it doesn’t mean lawmakers can’t also impose restrictions on other felons.
“That is not an unlimited right,” Levinson said.
Fellow St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Veronica Harwin also said the state has a compelling interest in having such a ban in order to promote public safety, and argued that felons are more likely to commit gun crimes. She said prosecutors use the felon-gun ban as a tool “to help fight the epidemic of gun violence” in Missouri.
But attorneys for the felons, as well as a judge, questioned that argument in some cases.
Judge Richard Teitelman pressed Harwin about evidence to show that felons convicted of white-collar crimes are more likely to use guns to hurt others.
Attorney Dave Roland, who represents a felon previously convicted of unlawful use of a weapon, also raised questions about whether there’s a compelling enough reason to restrict the right to bear arms in nonviolent situations. He cited lobbyists who face felony charges for failing to file certain reports as one example.
Roland said there’s not enough evidence to support claims that limiting all felons’ access to guns is appropriate and needed.
“When the people adopt a right, and particularly when they say it’s inalienable, the burden’s on the government to justify the restriction, not the other way around,” said Roland, who is also the co-founder of the group Freedom Center of Missouri, which focuses on individual liberties and limited government.
In August, the Supreme Court upheld the current ban in two other felon-gun cases based on a version of the Missouri Constitution that existed before the 2014 amendment.
Judges did not indicate when they might rule on the three latest cases.
The cases are State v. Raymond Robinson, SC94936; State v. Pierre Clay, SC94954; and State v. Steve Lomax, SC94989.