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Missouri Republican lawmaker pushes gun bill that would ‘make murder legal,’ prosecutors say

Lawmakers, aides and members of the public walk the halls of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City in January 2021. (Ethan Weston/Jefferson City News-Tribune/AP)

A new Missouri bill that would alter self-defense laws and establish that any use of “physical or deadly force” would be presumed to be self-defense has prompted controversy and sharp criticism from opponents.

Proponents of the bill argue that it shields citizens who exercise their Second Amendment rights, and are protected by existing state self-defense laws, from unfair prosecution. Opponents warn that it could bring dangerous, unintended consequences for public safety and hinder law enforcement’s ability to prosecute violent criminals.

Under current state law, citizens have the right to use physical force on another person to protect themselves, in instances including, but not limited to, when someone unlawfully enters private property or someone’s home. Yet the person bears the legal burden to prove he or she “reasonably believed physical or deadly force was necessary to protect him or herself or a third person.”

The proposed Senate Bill 666 would shift that burden of proof onto prosecutors, who would now need to present “clear and convincing evidence” during a pretrial hearing that the defendant was acting on motives other than self-defense before they can press charges.

The initiative has prompted a sharp rebuke from prosecutors, civil rights groups and law-enforcement agencies and organizations including the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Missouri Sheriffs United, the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police and the St. Louis Police Officers Association, among others.

Dozens of states have some version of self-defense laws, with different requirements to allow a person to use deadly force.

But the Missouri initiative falls in line with states such as Florida, where people can invoke self-defense and similarly be immune from criminal or civil prosecution.

Critics of the Missouri bill say it takes the determination of whether an act was committed in self-defense away from the jury and, instead, relies upon a pretrial court to make that decision before the jury hears all the evidence or analyzes circumstances of the case.

Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP, said the proposed measure would essentially allow anyone to go “penalty-free for murder.”

“It turns everything that we know about the rule of law as related to murder on its head,” he said in an interview Wednesday, adding that the presumption that anyone who shoots a person did it in self-defense would create a “culture of death.”

Chapel is representing the family of Justin King, a Black and Filipino man who was shot to death by his White neighbor in rural Missouri last year. The killing was ruled a justifiable homicide because King was trying to invade the neighbor’s residence.

Chapel argued that the existing “self-defense doctrine” is being applied “inequitably” to justify and prevent fair prosecution of crimes against people of color in rural Missouri, and he warned that the new initiative could further hinder access to criminal justice and affect “all Missourians.”

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Eric Burlison, also states that a person who uses, or threatens to use, force in self-defense “is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force” unless that force was directed against a law-enforcement officer on duty.

While police may investigate the use of force, they may not arrest the person unless the agency determines there is “probable cause that the force that was used or threatened was unlawful,” according to the bill.

Burlison did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the senator defended his proposal during a Senate hearing Tuesday, saying it protects “law-abiding Missourians whose only quote-unquote crime is that they were trying to defend themselves and/or their family members.”

If voted by a majority of a members of the Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, the bill would move to the Senate’s floor for further debate.

St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Lohmar said the initiative “changes the nature of self-defense claims” and establishes that “anybody who committed assault or murder and claims they were acting in self-defense is presumably correct and their actions were legal.”

“It would mean that practically in every murder case where you don’t have a witness, all the defendant has to say is that he or she was acting in self-defense to get away with it,” he said. “It also means you are going to have a lot of murderers walking free if this becomes law.”

Lohmar joined dozens of other prosecutors, law enforcement officers and agencies in condemning the initiative they have called the “Make Murder Legal Act.”

If passed, Lohmar said, the bill would have particularly devastating consequences in the state, where violent crime has risen in recent years, and even more so in cities like St. Louis, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the country, and could result in “single-digit” murder convictions. “This severely undermines law enforcement’s ability” to deal with crimes, he added.

On the other side of the aisle, proponents such as Mark McCloskey, an attorney who gained national attention after he and his wife pointed firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their home in St. Louis in 2020, praised the bill, arguing that it shields people from overzealous prosecution and protects their Second Amendment rights.

McCloskey, who is running for U.S. Senate and has been a staunch supporter of former president Donald Trump, said on his campaign website that the incident for which he and his wife ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanors has “empowered thousands of new gun owners across the country to purchase a firearm and learn how to defend themselves.”

McCloskey did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he said the new bill would turn the state’s existing Castle Doctrine — which justifies use of physical force as defense against intruders and trespassers — into a shield from prosecution.

He argued that the current laws have it “backwards,” where a jury decides “whether or not you committed a crime and then whether or not the Castle Doctrine provides you with a defense.”

The latest initiative adds to other efforts in the state to further expand or protect gun rights.

Last year the state legislature passed a law, the Second Amendment Preservation Act, that forbids local law enforcement agencies from helping the federal government enforce any law or regulation that Missouri considers an “infringement to the right to bear arms.” Each violation can carry a $50,000 penalty.