Inside Missouri’s ‘2nd Amendment Sanctuary’ Fight

OZARK, Mo. — Brad Cole is a fiery defender of the Second Amendment, a set-jawed lawman with a lacquered alligator head on his desk, a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum on his hip and a signed picture of himself with former President Donald J. Trump on his office wall.

Sheriff Cole, of Christian County, considers himself part of the constitutional sheriff movement, which contends that the federal government is subordinate to local authorities in most law-enforcement matters. Yet this year he found himself in the unusual position of pushing back against Republican state lawmakers ramming through a bill to punish local departments for collaborating with federal authorities on gun cases deemed to be in violation of Second Amendment rights.

“Anytime you take away a tool from us to do our job and protect the people we serve, well, I’m going to have a huge problem with that,” said Sheriff Cole, a Republican who worked with several other sheriffs from deep-red southern Missouri to modify the bill before it passed in May on a party-line vote.

“It’s just a terribly written law,” he said.

Even with the changes, the Second Amendment Preservation Act represents a challenge to federal authority that Biden administration officials and other critics see as a clear-cut violation of the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which prohibits states from passing laws that nullify federal statutes.

Last month, the Justice Department filed an affidavit supporting an effort by the city and county of St. Louis to strike down the law in state court, saying it had already hamstrung weapons and drug investigations. The judge in the case recently rejected a request to keep the law from going into effect, and, in response, Attorney General Merrick Garland is considering a federal lawsuit, according to two administration officials.

At the heart of the law is an audacious declaration — that all state firearms laws “exceed” the federal government’s power to track, register and regulate guns and gun owners.

The law, however, is as vague as it is expansive: Its authors did not focus on any specific federal law or policy, and state officials say they will not try to stop federal agents from executing raids, conducting background checks for gun buyers or enforcing existing laws, like the prohibition on gun purchases by felons.

But the law features a provision, the first of its kind in the nation, that allows Missourians to sue local law departments that give “material aid and support” to federal agents — defined as data sharing, joint operations, even social media posts — in violation of citizens’ perceived Second Amendment rights.

The law’s sponsors say that mechanism is protective and proactive, intended to counter Democratic gun-control efforts, especially President Biden’s attempts to ban semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. As one of its co-authors, State Senator Eric Burlison, put it, the bill was intended to tell Democrats considering new restrictions to “pound sand.”

The law has put Missouri, a starkly polarized state controlled by an emboldened Republican Party, at the leading edge of a “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement that has increasingly gained traction in the volatile post-Trump era, as conservative activists press red-state governments to act more boldly on a range of culture-wars issues — from guns to ballot access to abortion — that ignite their base in defiance of the Democrats who now control Washington.

Chief among the activists pushing the Missouri gun law was Aaron Dorr, who leads a family-run, Iowa-based network of far-right nonprofits in the Midwest and South. In an interview, Mr. Dorr described himself as a defender of conservative values and cast the Missouri battle in national terms, as an effort to force Republican moderates to take up his broader cause of confronting Washington.

“Obviously, it’s about far more than simply gun rights,” Mr. Dorr said of his involvement.

At least eight other states, including West Virginia, have recently passed similar bills, but most are more symbolic and less far-reaching than Missouri’s, and feature more explicit carve-outs for coordination between local and federal law-enforcement agencies. The Missouri law has the sharpest teeth: the provision allowing citizens to sue any local police agency for $50,000 for every incident in which they can prove that their rights were violated, provided they were not flouting state law.

That reliance on citizens’ lawsuits — bypassing police officers and prosecutors who may be reluctant to pursue highly politicized criminal cases — represents another political strategy gaining popularity on the right, most notably in the highly restrictive Texas abortion law that the Supreme Court recently let stand.

The Missouri law only went into effect at the end of August. But its critics, at home and in Washington, say it has already done damage, making some local officials afraid to work with federal partners, even on routine criminal cases, at a time when greater cooperation is needed.

In that respect, it is also testing the limits of one-party Republican state rule: The National Rifle Association, a bedrock Republican-allied institution, did not support the bill, and many local law-enforcement officials fear it will impinge on their ability to fight violent crime and stop drug trafficking. (Sheriff Cole ultimately accepted the political inevitability of the bill’s passage, but says he remains deeply concerned about its consequences.)

Some of those consequences were detailed in the Justice Department’s affidavit.

Nearly a quarter of state and local law-enforcement officials who work directly with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — 12 of 53 officers — have withdrawn from joint task force collaborations. State and local agencies have also begun to restrict federal access to investigative resources, including the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state crime database, and the Kansas City Police Department’s records system.

The police department in Columbia, home to the flagship campus of the University of Missouri, went so far as to disconnect from a national database of ballistics on weapons and ammunition recovered at crime scenes, A.T.F. officials reported.

The law, “has caused, and will continue to cause, significant harms to law enforcement within the state of Missouri,” wrote Brian M. Boynton, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division.

A Show of Force

The fight in Missouri began about a decade ago, with a backlash against a backlash.

After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama proposed a series of gun-control measures, which culminated in a failed effort in Congress to expand background checks on gun buyers.

The counterreaction by Republican-controlled state legislatures has been more sustained, and more successful.

The federal government has the constitutional authority to enact national gun legislation, but the gun lobby and congressional Republicans have stymied almost all major initiatives after an assault-weapons ban enacted in the 1990s was allowed to expire in 2004.

The most powerful regulatory tool in Washington’s arsenal — the national background check system for gun buyers — is administered directly by the F.B.I. through licensed local gun dealers, and is beyond the states’ reach. But Republican-controlled legislatures have vastly expanded access to gun ownership in recent years and blocked even limited restrictions, like Democratic proposals for local “red flag” laws intended to keep firearms out of the hands of people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Republicans in Jefferson City, the Missouri capital, have been especially active. Beginning in 2013, they pushed through some of the country’s broadest expansions of gun rights, with their most significant victory coming in 2016, when they overrode a veto by the Democratic governor at the time, Jay Nixon, to pass a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit or age restrictions.

Yet to many Second Amendment absolutists, eager to go on offense against Washington, the concealed-carry bill did not go far enough. They looked to the Second Amendment sanctuary movement that, with support from the N.R.A., had already begun primarily in counties across America, as an essentially symbolic mass protest against federal and state regulations.

Proponents argued that they were simply taking a page from liberal “sanctuary” cities that defied federal immigration and marijuana rules. To date, about 300 counties in 39 states have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group that monitors the movement.

Beginning in 2013, a group of conservative Missouri Republicans had pushed various bills penalizing law-enforcement officers who supported federal agents, but they were all deemed too extreme, and failed. In 2019, Mr. Burlison, a Republican from the Ozarks town of Battlefield, revived the effort, adding a provision that gave citizens the power to file civil suits.

Opponents of the bill accused its sponsors of inciting the fringe. But Mr. Burlison, a soft-spoken tax and retirement planner now running for Congress, says his intention was the opposite: preventing a violent reaction by gun owners if federal authorities imposed new restrictions on the ownership, sale or use of weapons.

“Our goal is to avoid a conflict, any physical consequences,” he said in an interview.

The legislation languished during Mr. Trump’s presidency. But it was resurrected by Mr. Biden’s gun-control agenda and his vow to crack down on gun violence after mass shootings early this year in Atlanta; Indianapolis; San Jose, Calif.; and Boulder, Colo.

It also received help from an important ally on the outside: Mr. Dorr.

Mr. Dorr has long drawn scrutiny for his far-right positions on abortion and guns and name-calling tirades against opponents (an unflattering portrait of his family’s organization was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning NPR podcast in 2020). Critics from across the ideological spectrum have accused him of latching onto political controversies, especially resistance to mask orders related to the pandemic, to raise cash for his network.

Mr. Dorr has few compunctions about calling out the N.R.A. — he said it was a “public disgrace” in the interview with The New York Times — and as the gun bill was moving through the legislature, he ridiculed Republicans who did not immediately sign on. As his supporters bombarded lawmakers with emails and phone calls, he labeled one wavering Senate leader a “rodent” in one of his characteristic Hannity-esque Facebook Live broadcasts.

“We can’t blame Democrats for blocking gun bills. They have no power, they have no majority, no votes, and they can’t numerically stop Republicans from anything in red states,” Mr. Dorr said in the interview. “That’s why we focus on Republicans.”

By February, a bill levying fines against individual law-enforcement officials who assisted federal agents passed the Missouri House.

The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association had quietly opposed the measure, but now intervened to negotiate a compromise. It dispatched several red-county sheriffs, including Sheriff Cole, to persuade sponsors to direct penalties at local departments rather than at officers.

The revised bill passed the Senate in May, as the session was set to end — but not before the majority leader, Caleb Rowden, an eventual yes vote, requested police protection after reporting threats from backers of the bill.

Lauren Arthur, a Democratic senator from the Kansas City area who opposed the bill, said that since the vote she had been approached by Republicans privately expressing hope that it would be struck down in court.

“Republicans around here need to have some kind of legislation they can hold up as a trophy at the end of every session — the dark joke is it is either on abortion or on guns,” said Ms. Arthur, who led an unsuccessful effort to ban gun sales to people convicted of domestic-violence offenses.

She added, “I’m not creative enough to think of what else we can do to be more pro-gun other than, I don’t know, giving a gun to every newborn baby.”

A Chilling Effect

The pushback began days after Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill at a gun emporium and shooting range called Frontier Justice.

In mid-June, the police chief in O’Fallon, a St. Louis suburb, quit in frustration, writing in an open letter that the new law was so “poorly worded” that it would “decrease public safety” by stigmatizing all interactions with federal agents. Even some who supported its passage started voicing concerns.

“I think the legislature had some very good intentions and, yes, we do have to do everything we can do to protect our Second Amendment,” said Jim Arnott, the Republican sheriff from Greene County, which includes Mr. Burlison’s district. “But if anybody, for one second, thinks that there was not some politics involved in this, they have lost their mind.”

Many sheriffs rely on close collaboration with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the F.B.I. and the U.S. Marshals Service's fugitive task forces, among other agencies, to help track down criminals. The biggest problem, they say, has been determining which joint investigations run afoul of the new law.

For example, the act declares that state laws, backed by the Second Amendment, supersede federal attempts to “require the registration or tracking” of guns, a broad description open to wide interpretation.

“It has caused tons of confusion,” said the Republican sheriff of Buchanan County, Bill Puett, speaking over the crackle of a police radio in his office in St. Joseph, which has seen a spike in violent crime.

Mr. Burlison said he spent hours hearing out the sheriffs, including Mr. Arnott. But “at the end of the day,” he said, “I wasn’t elected by sheriffs, I was elected by the citizens.”

One official with few reservations about the law is Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, who has pulled out of nearly two dozen federal violent crime cases. The State Highway Patrol followed suit, suspending participation in an A.T.F. task force, according to a state spokesman.

Justice Department officials have singled out Mr. Schmitt — who is running for the U.S. Senate in next year’s Republican primary — in their warnings about the law. In an email, Mr. Schmitt’s spokesman said the attorney general was committed to fighting crime, and he blasted Mr. Biden for “attempting to infringe on Missourians’ Second Amendment rights.”

Missouri Democrats, their power largely confined to St. Louis and Kansas City, believe that Republican leaders are sacrificing the state’s long-term health for the short-term safety of appeasing the Trump wing of the party.

“There is almost no limit,” said Kansas City’s mayor, Quinton Lucas, adding that his mother had called a few hours earlier to say she had heard gunshots fired near her home. “The problem is no one is really pushing back. To the extent that there is a moderate sect of the Republican Party, they are not vocal. And I think it has allowed for this gross radicalization. It’s dangerous for American politics.”

But the law was not passed to please Mr. Lucas, or his mother.

Many of the customers who strolled through a recent gun show at the Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence said they liked the law, even if they were fuzzy on its details.

Like most gun shows, this $12-a-head event in Harry Truman’s hometown was equal parts consumerism and conservative politics: AR-15s in iPhone-case colors — lavender, sparkle-top and daisy-yellow — near surplus Trump campaign gear and T-shirts that taunted “Take It Away From Me.”

Guns and parts were in ample supply. Ammunition was not — the result, people said, of anxious buying after Mr. Biden’s election.

“We need the law because our government is violating its own Constitution, and the whole system is out of balance,” said Robert Malcom, a gun-shop owner from Clinton, southeast of Kansas City. “Has Missouri gone too far? No, sir.”

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