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[Vanessa Charlot for The Trace]

Ricochet

Fixing Gun Laws Felt Increasingly Hopeless. Then a Tragedy Pulled Her Back Into the Fight.

Kelli Dunaway was part of an all-female voting bloc that made it illegal for abusers to carry concealed weapons in St. Louis County.

The night a new gun law came up for discussion, tension that had been building on the St. Louis County Council finally spilled over. The four women on the council, all Democrats, were eager to pass a county law making it illegal for domestic abusers to carry concealed weapons. The three men on the council, who were all Republicans, strongly opposed it. 

The argument continued even after the bill passed and the council chairperson, Lisa Clancy, struck her gavel. One of the dissenting Republicans complained that his remarks had been cut short: “Just for the record, as far as I can tell, we still live in a democracy.” 

Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway was not about to back down. After years of feeling hopeless about the nation’s gun violence crisis, tragedy had hit very close. She told herself she had to do something. “I knew that when the next opportunity came up I would be willing to fight for it.” 

Even as a young girl, Dunaway found she needed a bit of pluck to get by. Her parents divorced when she was in second grade. A year later Dunaway’s mom packed up her three children and moved from Evansville, Indiana, to southern Illinois, where she found work as a coal miner. 

Dunaway would return to Evansville throughout her childhood and teenage years to visit her grandmother. In those early visits, she remembers admiring her older cousin Joyce — a confident high school student with short blonde hair and a perfectly made bed. As the years passed, Joyce married and became a mother, chasing her three small children around their grandmother’s yard. “You know how old memories get: You remember the feeling more than the actual event,” Dunaway said recently. “And I just remember her laughing, and feeling her happiness.” 

Back in Illinois, Dunaway watched her mother do punishing labor just to cover basic expenses. She resolved to do well in school and seek less strenuous work when she became an adult. But when she was 17, she was thrown from a car in an auto accident. Regaining consciousness in a hospital intensive care unit, she asked the nurses at her bedside whether she would ever walk again. They told her it was unlikely — she had broken her spine in two places.

Dunaway spent three years in a wheelchair. She couldn’t go back to high school because there weren’t any ramps for her to use. Instead she finished her classes at home, then enrolled in the local community college. Gradually, she built up strength until she could walk with two canes, and eventually just one. She transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where she studied history and graduated with honors.

When she told her family that she wanted to go to law school at University of California at Los Angeles, they thought she was being reckless. But she was not discouraged by their doubt — she was motivated by it. “As a disabled woman, I have ‘underestimate me’ written all over me,” said Dunaway, who still walks with a cane today. “I work extra hard because I have more to prove.”

Dunaway moved to St. Louis in 2011 to live closer to the man who became her husband. Soon after she arrived, and less than a year after having her first child, she watched the news of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even today her voice breaks as she thinks of the parents who were told that their children would never come home again. “I thought: Finally, our country is going to do something about our gun laws,” she said. But when national legislation to expand background checks and ban assault weapons failed, she lost hope that leaders would ever pass laws that would make people safer. 

She was further discouraged when, in 2014, a white police officer shot Black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburbs 15 minutes from Dunaway’s home. The shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited nationwide protests over the pattern of police brutality against young Black men, and prompted the Justice Department to issue a scathing report declaring that the city had violated the constitution and that it should rebuild its police department from scratch. But Dunaway felt that, locally, many white people were still in denial. “People in St. Louis still didn’t want to talk about racism. We all think we’re so nice, and the idea that we have an implicit bias feels like an affront.”

Motivated to take a stand against newly elected Republican President Donald Trump, Dunaway launched a short-lived bid for Congress. She remembers her exasperation about the difficulty of passing new gun violence prevention laws slipping out when someone asked her about it at a campaign event. “I said, ‘We’re in Missouri, nothing’s ever going to change here,’” she recalls. “I think I really disappointed people — and lost support at that moment.” 

Then, in 2017, Dunaway got some personal news that changed her attitude. Her father called to say that her cousin Joyce had been murdered in Cleveland. Joyce, then 50, had left an abusive boyfriend weeks earlier, getting a protective order and going to stay with friends. But the man tracked her down in the parking lot of the UPS facility where she worked and shot her as she sat in her car. “It changed my perspective, just feeling so close to that kind of senseless violence,” Dunaway said.

When Dunaway decided to run for County Council a year ago, it was with a renewed resolve that she could make a difference, however small or local. And when the county executive introduced a measure barring people with domestic violence protective orders and convictions from having guns, she knew right away she would vote for it.

Local laws regarding domestic abusers and guns are complicated, because a federal law bars anyone with a domestic violence protective order or a domestic violence conviction from possessing a gun. But it’s local police who are most likely to find domestic abusers with guns. Often, they either don’t turn those cases over to federal law enforcement, or if they do, federal law enforcement doesn’t take them. The local law that Dunaway voted for amounted to little more than a traffic ticket for the offender, but she hoped it would send a message that St. Louis County was taking the issue seriously. 

The three men on the council argued that the federal charge already on the books was enough, and that adding a local violation was nothing more than political grandstanding. Beth Orwick, the lawyer advising the St. Louis County Council on their work, confirmed that county police have not used the charge since the new law was passed. She said ordinance violations in general have dropped with stay-at-home orders in place this summer. She also noted that domestic violence calls are down across the country because victims of abuse have fewer opportunities to escape their abusers long enough to seek help. 

Councilman Tim Fitch, a former St. Louis County police chief, said the fact the violation has not been charged is evidence that it is not a useful law enforcement tool. “It looked very nice on a campaign brochure,” he said. “But what it was actually doing was watering down a felony into an ordinance violation.”

St. Louis County modeled its law on a similar one passed last year in Kansas City, Missouri; officials there said the law has been implemented successfully, but they were not able to provide data on how often it’s been used. In other parts of the country too, local laws have been effective in keeping guns away from offenders who otherwise might not have been prosecuted. Dunaway agrees that the St. Louis law didn’t go far enough, but says it’s a start. “Whether it was symbolic or not, we took a stand and said no more to gun violence. Even if it’s a tiny little step, we’re going to take it with the full force of our four voices together.” 

Dunaway is on the ballot for re-election in November, and she expects to win in what is a reliably a Democtaric district. In her next four-year term, she hopes to fight for reform in the county police department, creating a system through which first responders other than police show up to emergencies involving domestic violence, mental health, homelessness, and drug addiction. It’s a big project to take on, and like the law barring domestic abusers from carrying concealed weapons, she knows it won’t be perfect. “I’m not kidding myself,” she said. “All I can do is take the beginning steps of what will take a generation to solve.”