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Missouri Supreme Court weighs law against federal gun rules

Missouri Supreme Court judges on Monday heard arguments in a lawsuit seeking to strike down a new state law barring local police from enforcing federal gun laws.

A lawyer for St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County — which sued to overturn the law — asked judges to rule that the law is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers and to toss it out.

Attorney Robert Dierker called it the “Separation of Powers Destruction Act” during court arguments and said the law is “unintelligible” about which federal firearms laws Missouri police can or cannot enforce.

The law, passed last year by the GOP-led Legislature, declares “invalid” many federal gun regulations that don’t have an equivalent in Missouri law. These include statutes covering weapons registration and tracking, and possession of firearms by some domestic violence offenders.

Local departments are barred from enforcing them, or risk being sued for $50,000 by private citizens who believe their Second Amendment rights have been violated.

The Justice Department has said that the Missouri state crime lab, operated by the Highway Patrol, is refusing to process evidence that would help federal firearms prosecutions because of the law, and the Highway Patrol, along with many other agencies, have suspended joint efforts to enforce federal firearms laws.

Judge Brent Powell questioned whether there’s any legal issue with pulling Missouri law enforcement from those federal programs.

“Isn’t it up to the General Assembly?” Powell asked Dierker. “They can decide if the state of Missouri will participate in these types of programs.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the law, argued that critics failed to take the right procedural steps in their lawsuit.

Solicitor General John Sauer told judges that a lower court should weigh in on the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court rules on the merits of the case. He also argued that the plaintiffs should have asked a lower court to rule on which federal gun laws cannot be enforced by local police if there’s so much confusion about it.

Both the federal government and local Missouri law enforcement have criticized the law as hampering their response to crime.

“We are reaching out our hand in cooperation to the state and local agencies that have worked with us, because we want to work together to solve the problem of violent crime in this state,” Jeffrey Sandberg, a lawyer for the U.S. government, said during arguments. “But we are running into problems where there are people who want to cooperate with us, but they are mindful that they are making judgments on the spot about what would potentially put their agency’s budget at risk.”

Nearly 60 Missouri police chiefs in January came out in support of the lawsuit, saying that there’s confusion about exactly what police can and cannot do.

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