JEFFERSON CITY - The drive to allow Missourians to carry concealed weapons is plowing ahead in the last weeks of the legislative session.
The House passed and sent the legislation to the Senate on Wednesday, days after grassroots groups abandoned their opposition to putting the issue on the ballot. With support from gun groups, little stands in the way of an April 1999 ballot measure.
The referendum provision had been the point of contention. Gov. Mel Carnahan opposes concealed weapons, but says it should be put to a vote of the people. Carnahan has threatened to veto any bill without a referendum provision. If the legislature passes a referendum, the bill would bypass the governor's desk and move straight to the ballot.
Although legislators have been voting overwhelmingly for the measure, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Crump, D-Potosi, at each stage of the legislative process, confusion has surrounded the gun lobby and constituents' sentiments on the referendum. Positions have flip-flopped.
The National Rifle Association now supports the referendum -- its third position since Crump's bill was introduced. It quickly threw its support behind the measure after local gun groups changed their position Saturday. The NRA had initially supported the bill, but then backed off because it did not want to be in opposition to local gun groups.
"We did not support it because a number of local groups [had] come out against the referendum," said Fred Myers, state liaison for the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's political arm. "We decided it was best to maintain a neutral position."
Local gun groups are still philosophically opposed to the referendum, but realized they must deal with political realities, said Tim Oliver, lobbyist for Missouri Legislative Issues Council, the groups' umbrella organization.
MOLIC had previously testified that it would "vigorously fight" any bill with a referendum. More than 100 members packed a House hearing last month to urge legislators to vote against a referendum. The groups argued that carrying a concealed weapon is a Second Amendment right not be subject to popular vote.
Oliver blamed Carnahan for impeding the progress of concealed weapons bills for the last six years and forcing them to compromise their position.
"MOLIC recognizes that the will of the current governor and legislature is such that they are unwilling to enact a law to allow the carrying of concealed weapons," Oliver said. "Given the political reality, if [the referendum] is where we have to go, that's where we'll go."
But MOLIC's new position was not accepted by all the local groups. The reversal caused its chair to resign and withdraw his group from MOLIC.
Others opposed to the bill expressed concern about allowing more people to carry guns. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, was one of the 35 House members who voted against the bill.
"I think it's an invitation to more crime in Missouri," Harlan said.
Opposition from law enforcement has focused largely on technical aspects of the such as permits, fees, and the required training. But their opposition this year may be subdued because of the referendum provision.
"My experience is that the close proximity to weapons causes far more violence than it prevents," said Dennis Veach, deputy chief of the Columbia Police Department. "What we will have is a minor altercation that will escalate very quickly to deadly force."
Although Veach is opposed to concealed weapons, he said he supports sending the issue to a vote of the people.
"That's never inappropriate," Veach said. "That's democracy."
Col. Weldon Wilhoit from the Missouri State Highway Patrol said he worried that officers will be endangered if more cars pulled over contain guns, but echoed Veach's sentiment.
"We'll follow the lead of what the people say," Wilhoit said.