I authored the below letter with St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum. It appears today as an "As We See It" column in the Kansas City Star.
The Missouri legislature is receiving national attention for passing a law that would attempt to nullify all federal gun laws within the state. The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, but the legislature may attempt to override that veto.
Most legal experts agree that the legislation is unconstitutional. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not allow state legislatures to nullify federal laws.
As police officials we are concerned about this legislation because it would make it a state crime for our federal partners at the FBI, ATF, and other agencies to do their job of enforcing federal gun laws in Missouri. The prospect of Missouri officials trying to arrest federal agents is unimaginable, but that is what House Bill 436 would provide.
We find the legislation offensive for the disrespect it shows to federal law enforcement agents. Our partnerships with federal officials are a key part of our strategies for reducing gun violence. Federal criminal sentences for gun violence are usually more certain than those provided under state law. And federal agencies provide important resources in personnel, equipment, and intelligence about violent criminals.
The respect for federal agencies among local police, particularly with respect to reducing gun violence, is found nationwide. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a policing research organization, in 2009 conducted a survey of all local law enforcement agencies serving cities of 100,000 or more regarding their gun violence strategies.
PERF asked the local police to “rate” dozens of gun violence reduction strategies, such as tracing guns found at crime scenes, investigating straw purchases of guns on behalf of convicted felons, deploying gunshot detection technology, targeting violent gangs, removing guns from the scene of domestic violence calls, and providing gun safety education in schools.
The strategies that involve working with federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors received high approval ratings. In fact, the Number 1 strategy that police chiefs consider most effective in preventing gun violence is submitting cases to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution. Police chiefs wish that federal prosecutors could handle more gun violence cases resulting from partnerships between local police and federal agents.
A large-scale operation of this kind made headlines in St. Louis in July. More than 200 people were arrested and 265 firearms were seized in the operation, which involved more than 80 ATF personnel working with St. Louis police and others.
The arrestees had a total of more than 2,300 prior arrests – and yet these people were still on the streets of St. Louis and East St. Louis, armed and dangerous. Because of this joint operation, the arrestees are now facing federal charges with significant penalties. This will make our neighborhoods safer.
Similar results were obtained in the Kansas City area in May, when an operation by ATF and Kansas City Police produced 61 arrests and seizure of 222 firearms. Some of the seized guns had been used in multiple violent crimes, including unsolved homicide investigations. This operation targeted armed career criminals – violent felons who carry guns.
Local police chiefs are grateful for the help we receive from ATF, the FBI, and other federal agencies. And yet if House Bill 436 were allowed to take effect, instead of thanking federal agents for helping us take violent offenders off the street, our duty would be to arrest the federal agents.
The outcome of this absurd legislation is that our communities will be less safe if criminals are not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Other states recognize the value of partnerships between local police and federal agencies. If Missouri shuts down these partnerships because of a decision made by legislators, in effect we will be encouraging criminals to come to Missouri.
We urge our legislators to sustain the Governor’s veto of House Bill 436 and allow Missouri’s law enforcement agencies to work with federal agencies. The citizens of Kansas City and St. Louis will be better off for it.
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