There was a moment early last fall when the divergence between the gun debate in Missouri’s capitol and the reality in its largest city could be fairly described as oceanic. Over the last decade, the state’s gun homicide rate had soared by almost 20 percent, and for the second year in a row, St. Louis was on pace to record the highest murder rate in the country. In September, the Republican-controlled legislature convened in Jefferson City for a special session. On the agenda, for the second time in five months, were a pair of measures that would make it easier to carry a concealed gun in public and expand the circumstances in which it is legally permissible for a private citizen to shoot a person perceived as threatening.
It was voting for a second time because Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat in the last months of his final term, had vetoed the measures when Missouri’s General Assembly forwarded the bills to his desk over the summer. The state’s lawmakers, roughly 70 percent of whom held top grades from the National Rifle Association, easily amassed the votes needed to override Nixon’s rejections. With that, Missouri became one of a dozen states to allow residents to carry a concealed weapon in public without first obtaining a permit or undergoing training, and the first since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to enact a “stand your ground” law.
The new statutes were the latest act in a steady unwinding that got underway in 2004, when Missouri lifted its 128-year ban on the carrying of concealed firearms. That change was followed by the repeal of the state’s universal background check system; the passage of ever-expanding self-defense protections; and the lowering of the age to exercise the newly enshrined right to carry a hidden weapon from 21 to 19. The homicide chart covering the same period looks like a spiking fever, reflecting St. Louis’s nation-leading levels of violent death.
The Trace’s coverage of gun violence has taken us to Missouri a number of times. Those articles have told the story of an 89-pound-boy gunned down for stealing change; heard from a funeral home director who has looked on as mourning teenagers pick out their own caskets; and highlighted a political shift that means a Missouri Democrat can love guns (as many do) and yet still draw antipathy (and attack ads) from the increasingly Republican-allied NRA. But when a state has both alarmingly frequent shootings and is hurtling into the gun rights vanguard, there will remain threads unpulled, voices unheard, records not yet examined.
This January, we asked a class at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism if it might be interested in filling in some of the blanks. With Trace writers and editors providing some of the story ideas and background subject matter expertise, students in Associate Professor Paige Williams’s Advanced Narrative Techniques course spent the semester digging into the kind of material not found in crime blotters and roll call votes. Through rigorous reporting, they produced the articles you see below, which together provide a ground-level portrait of a state critical to understanding the outsized roles that firearms occupy in our nation’s politics and public safety, or lack thereof. — Mike Spies