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[Kevin Whipple for The Trace]

Missouri Under the Gun

The Education of a Red-State Gun-Reform Activist

"We are going to be playing defense all the time."

It’s around 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday in April, and the Missouri Moms are getting antsy. They’re in Jefferson City to testify against a pair of bills that would further eliminate state gun restrictions. They were scheduled to speak nearly two hours ago, but lawmakers are still discussing the state budget.

Missouri Under The Gun

A collaboration between The Trace and students of the Missouri School of Journalism

So roughly two dozen women, wearing matching Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America T-shirts, have relocated to nearby Paddy Malone’s Pub to wait out the funding debate. According to the gathered Moms volunteers, today is the state chapter’s largest-ever turnout for a legislative hearing. About 40 members showed up, though some couldn’t stick around during the delay, and have already begun their trips home to their families in Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cape Girardeau, and Springfield.

This is the nature of grassroots organizing: Volunteers trek from across the state to show their support (or opposition) — sometimes with as little as 24-hour’s notice — and hope the hearing they’ve traveled for actually happens. The fight against gun-rights legislation can seem like a hopeless pursuit in Missouri, where Governor Eric Greitens beat his Democratic opponent by six percentage points after running a campaign ad of himself shooting a rifle at a target that, when hit, burst into flames. But Moms volunteers think their work is vital, even if the odds are often unfavorable. “We are going to be playing defense all the time,” says Kristin Bowen, who leads the Moms chapter in Columbia. (Moms Demand Action is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, whose Support Fund provides financial support to The Trace.)

If Moms accomplishes nothing else, Bowen says, simply drawing attention to the topic is a victory. Her husband is a professor of English at the University of Missouri, and she was inspired to start the Columbia Moms chapter to counteract the push to allow concealed guns on public college campuses. After a bill was approved in Georgia earlier this month, 11 states now permit some form of campus carry. In both of Missouri’s past two legislative sessions, legislators have filed bills that would add their state to that list.

Last month, a photo of Bowen was posted on the Missouri Firearms Coalition Facebook page, showing her with a Moms Demand Action tote bag slung over her shoulder. Commenters jumped at the chance to insult the group. Some were simply annoyed (“It does show a lack of knowledge…sad”). Some lobbed sexist criticism. (“For them to be such concerned mom’s they sure don’t spend much time with their kids. Lol”) Some accused Moms volunteers of being paid protestors. Still others contained direct threats. (“SOMEBODY SHOOT THEM.”)

“Now let’s talk about gun-free zones,” says state Representative Nick Schroer, a Republican from O’Fallon, Missouri. It’s April 10, six days after the Moms’ previous visit to Jefferson City. The House General Laws committee is in session, and guns are on the agenda.

Schroer is presenting a new bill that he is sponsoring. It would allow customers to sue the owners of gun-banning businesses for violent injuries sustained on their properties.

It’s standing room only in the hearing room. A Lincoln University police officer is fanning himself with a sheet of paper.

Twenty-two people wearing Moms shirts are here, most of them packed on one side of the room. Jon Carpenter, a Democrat from Kansas City, presses Schroer on why the bill seems unfairly tilted in favor of pro-gun businesses. Under this law, businesses that allow guns on their premises aren’t subject to the same liability lawsuits as those that don’t. The question draws encouraging cheers from the Moms.

“As a business owner, if you are not wantonly neglectful — extremely neglectful as you can say — then you are not going to be held liable,” Schroer replies.

Schroer later admits that one of the goals he has for the bill is for it to start discussion.  He says he doesn’t “want to have an Aurora, Colorado, shooting here. I don’t want to have a Santa Barbara here.” The Moms are heard saying, “ugh” and “oh” and “oh, my God.”

Bowen soon takes the stand to testify. Sitting before the committee she says, “Rather than punishing business for prohibiting guns on their property, legislators, I’d ask you to focus on protecting our communities.”

Researchers and lawyers who work for partner organization Everytown for Gun Safety review the Moms’ prepared remarks before committee hearings, sometimes outfitting them with relevant studies. On its website, Moms says the group is neither anti-gun nor anti-Second Amendment. Some volunteers mention that they own guns and enjoy sport shooting. “What is powerful about that, I think, is you can see that people from all different parts of Missouri can agree in the value and culture of responsible gun ownership,” Bowen says. “What we’re asking for is really reasonable, and it’s reasonable to people from different walks of life.”

The Moms’ appearance against the liability legislation was a warm-up for a more pressing bill, HB 630, which would allow legal gun owners to carry concealed firearms in places that are currently “gun-free zones:” polling places, local government buildings, state government buildings, the state Capitol, bars, child-care facilities, riverboat-gambling operations, gated areas of amusement parks, sports stadiums, churches, schools, and hospitals. Only in some of these places, including the state Capitol and college campuses, would gun owners be required to have a permit.

Jon Carpenter, the committee’s top Democrat, is against the bill. “Let’s start on page one,” he says as the General Laws Committee meeting begins on April 10, looking at Jered Taylor, a Republican from Nixa. He’s the bill’s sponsor and another committee member. “Sound fun?” Carpenter questions every place Taylor, the bill’s sponsor, wants to allow guns. “You actually want this to be a law?” he asks.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Taylor says.

“You want guns in all these places?” Carpenter asks.

“Yes, I do,” says Taylor. “I want individuals to be able to choose whether or not to carry a gun to protect themselves, and others, if the need were to arise.”

The committee chairman, Robert Cornejo, a Republican from St. Peters, calls an end to  Carpenter’s inquiries after about 20 minutes. Now it’s time for outside testimony.

Alexandra Salsman, political director for the Missouri Firearms Coalition, walks to the microphone carrying a box of signed petitions in support of the legislation. She stacks the papers two feet high on the table in front of her. Thud, thud, thud.

“Gun-free zones put law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage because only law-abiding citizens obey them,” Salsman says. “People with criminal intent don’t care any more about bureaucratic gun laws than they do the signs that say, ‘No guns allowed.’”

Next up: opposition testimony, which comes from a lobbyist for the Kansas City Chiefs, a man speaking on behalf of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Jackson County Sports Authority; two campus police officers; community college administrators; and four Moms volunteers. They all claim that allowing concealed carry in their respective workplaces  — college campuses, stadiums, day-care centers — will create new dangers.

Becky Morgan, the president of Missouri’s Moms chapter, is the final person to approach the microphone to testify.

As she’s wrapping up, Peter Merideth, a freshman Democratic representative from St. Louis, re-enters the hearing room after a brief absence. He has a question for Morgan.

“I wasn’t here when you introduced yourself,” Merideth says as he begins a bit of friendly political theater. He says he’s been reading that she and the other Moms are paid for their appearances at the capitol. “Do you get a salary?” he asks.

“No sir, I do not,” Morgan says, taking the cue.

“And you’re a volunteer?”

“That is correct.”

“And the folks with you here today, you’re all volunteers?”

“Every single one.”

“Do you all live in this state?”

Here the other women in the red shirts join in: “Yes, we do.”

Taylor’s bill passed through the General Laws Committee and one other, but made no further progress this legislative session, which ended last week. Missouri’s Republican-dominated legislature instead focused its efforts on passing a budget and getting state-issued driver licenses up to federal standards.

Bowen says the Missouri Moms will be ready to oppose the bill again if it presents itself next year — which she’s almost positive will happen, so she doesn’t take much satisfaction out of delaying Republican-backed gun-rights efforts.

“It feels like it’s never over,” she says.