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[Kevin Whipple]

Missouri Under the Gun

Inside the Class That Teaches Missouri Lawmakers When It’s OK to Pull the Trigger

Once a year, state legislators gather for private firearms instruction. Some also leave with new ideas for relaxing gun laws.

The PowerPoint image on the projector screen showed a young girl huddled in a corner, near the words “When the wolf pounds at your door.” On the opposite side of the room hung framed portraits of the 31 Missouri state troopers killed in the line of duty since the state’s founding. Seated in between was a group of seven Missouri lawmakers, more than a dozen aides, and two Capitol employees.

Missouri Under The Gun

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

They had gathered at the Missouri State Troopers’ Association headquarters in Jefferson City for the ninth annual concealed-carry weapons class offered specifically for state lawmakers. The images on the two walls were appropriate bookends for the key message of the class: Americans are under an ever-present threat of violence, and an armed citizenry is the first line of defense.

Missouri is one of the parts of the country where that mentality is very much embraced by elected representatives, who have dramatically scaled back the state’s gun laws over the past decade. Concerned that they need to wield guns themselves, some legislators sign up for this private concealed-carry course, which is organized by the Legislative Sportsman’s Caucus. Sometimes, they leave with inspiration for further loosening Missouri’s gun regulations.

Class began at 10 a.m. None of the lawmakers needed to be there, strictly speaking. Since January 1, Missouri has no longer required that residents complete a training course and secure a concealed-carry license before holstering a pistol underneath their clothing. It’s one of 11 states to create a permitless-carry option over the past seven years.

Missouri has also lowered the bar for gun owners who still want a concealed-carry permit, requiring only that they complete a one-hour online class and fire off 40 rounds at a range.

The class the legislators had gathered for, however, remained at the old mandatory eight hours. The man who greeted everyone at the door, blue rubber gun at his side, wouldn’t have it any other way. Todd Burke is a reserve officer with the police department in the small town of Hallsville. Several attendees enrolled specifically because of his reputation as an instructor. Anything less than four hours in the classroom and another four hours on the range does not cut it for him.

Burke directed students toward a conference room where the other main instructor, Dale Roberts, was waiting. Roberts is the former head of the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control and currently directs a regional police officer’s union. Legislation has been born in this class, Roberts says. A bill mandating gun education for Missouri’s first-graders, for example, was first sketched out by a Republican state senator here in 2012.

When the legislators entered, they were handed an article entitled “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” written by a police trainer named Dave Grossman, who gives popular lectures on “killology” at the National Rifle Association’s annual conventions. The idea is that knowing how to use a gun in defense of self or others makes you a sheepdog, equipped to protect the sheep from the wolves. It’s become a tenet of modern firearms culture (as well as the basis for an early scene in the 2014 blockbuster “American Sniper”). Burke is an ardent believer. “I hate the term, ‘don’t take the law into your own hands,’” he says in class. “I wish more people would.”

For Burke, having a gun is not enough. The gun owner has to be prepared to confront danger, violently if necessary. Burke wants to train sheepdogs, and he’s critical of anything that preaches otherwise. This includes guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security that tell people that the first response to an active shooter should be to try to run away. Lots of schools, including the University of Missouri, teach the “Run, hide, fight” approach, emphasizing that order. But Burke says that the system doesn’t work because people aren’t taught how to do the “fight” part.

There’s debate among the state’s police officials on whether armed citizens have a role to play in public safety. Paul Williams, Springfield’s police chief, says he is open to the possibility of gun carriers helping keep the peace — but only if they have training. Sam Dotson, the former chief of St. Louis’ Metropolitan Police Department, disagrees: “Springfield is different than St. Louis,” he says. “Armed citizens coming to the aid of police officers creates more problems than it solves.” Both chiefs were vocal opponents of Missouri’s permitless-carry law. “My concern is someone without training or education on how to use a weapon,” Williams says. “Or someone who shouldn’t have one.”

When the permit requirement was taken off the books, law enforcement lost opportunities to keep unfit gun owners from carrying hidden firearms in public. Major Tom Reddin, who oversees the Boone County Sheriff’s Department’s conceal-carry permit program, says the department used to reject a handful of applicants each year because of troubling background information it learned from local agencies. (In 2016, Reddin’s department denied or revoked 25 permit applications. In the first quarter of 2017, it rejected only one.)

Permitless carry also arrived in Missouri at a moment when the state is home to more guns than at any point in recent history. Although one background check does not necessarily equal one gun sold, it is the best available barometer of gun sales — and there were more than 600,000 checks in Missouri last year, the highest number this century.

Burke clicked through more PowerPoint slides. The lawmakers’ time on a shooting range would come later. Today was all about when it’s OK to shoot another person.

Burke says he’s glad citizens no longer need a permit to carry. But he says he still strongly believes that people should sign up for training on their own.

As the new law takes hold, many Missourians seem content to forgo such instruction. The State Highway Patrol processes the fingerprinting that is part of the concealed-carry permit application. From 2014 to 2016, the highway patrol recorded a sharp increase in those checks. In the first three months of 2017, however, that number plummeted.

Individual jurisdictions have also noticed decreases. The Boone County Sheriff’s Department — which encompasses the University of Missouri’s main campus in Columbia — oversees permit applications in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties. During the first quarter of last year, it handled more than 1,200 permit requests. In the first quarter of this year, the department had received just 92 applications.

Roberts moved on to the next portion of the class, detailing the 17 kinds of public and private spaces — including bars, stadiums, college campuses, and amusement parks — where guns are not allowed. The instructors explained that carrying a concealed weapon into a prohibited area leads to very different penalties depending on whether the gun owner has a permit. If somebody with a permit carries a concealed weapon into an area where it’s banned, he or she may face a $100 citation. But if someone without a permit does the same thing, he or she could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The fact that citizens with permits are treated differently than citizens without was news to Representative Mike Moon, a Republican from Ash Grove. He took note.

Some of the class’s attendees had little shooting experience. Others, like Republican Representative Warren Love, were more familiar with guns. Love had actually taken this same class before, but wanted a refresher course, especially to learn how the new gun laws — which he supported — would work in practice.

Love said he also felt that many of his constituents didn’t understand some of the limitations that are still in place.

“I have a lot of people ask me about it,” he said, of recently implemented gun laws. “So I thought, you know, what better place to learn so that I could explain it?”

Love left still unsure if he wanted to apply for a permit. Having to pass the sheriff’s department background check felt invasive to him, but he still strongly believes in the value of training for those who want to carry. “You’re shouldering a big responsibility,” he said. “I just think that there’s too many people probably carrying that, that are somewhat – I’m just going to use the word: ignorant. You know, ignorant of the law.”

Moon returned to his office after class and told his assistant, Rush Loftis, what he had learned about the penalties for bringing firearms into a restricted space. He spent the rest of the day drafting a bill that would decriminalize taking a gun into a prohibited area, whether or not the person had a permit.

The bill, HB 1107, was filed the next day. That evening, Moon posted a video on Facebook, crediting the Burke and Robert’s class for bringing the issue to his attention. “You, as a permitless carrier of a concealed firearm, can be fined up to $1,000, and even serve jail time if you take your gun into a place that’s prohibited, like a school or a federal building,” Moon said into the camera. “This is a problem.”

One of Moon’s concealed-carry classmates was Representative Chuck Basye, a Republican who was recently appointed chairman of the state House’s brand new Subcommittee on Second Amendment Preservation. The subcommittee, made up of four Republicans and two Democrats, was created in February to help manage the wave of new gun legislation that’s been filed since September, when permitless carry was passed. Proposals introduced over the past seven months vary from making it harder for domestic abusers to carry guns, to holding businesses that ban guns liable for injuries sustained by their customers.

One of the most hotly contested bills would allow guns in many areas that currently prohibit them, like polling places, bars, hospitals, day cares, and stadiums. Basye’s committee drafted a report supporting it, and soon after the bill began making its way through the House. It has since received approval from two key oversight committees.