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EDITORIAL
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


The road to hell

11/12/2003

MISSOURI'S NEW concealed-weapons law is an abomination. People can carry concealed guns into schools, day care centers, and churches. It would be wonderful if the law were unconstitutional, as Judge Steven R. Ohmer says it is. But it's hard to read the Missouri Constitution that way without a lot of wishful thinking.

Judge Ohmer issued a 23-page opinion making his injunction against the law permanent. His opinion is singularly unpersuasive. The state Bill of Rights guarantees the right of every person to bear arms, and goes on to say, "but this shall not justify the wearing of concealed weapons." Judge Ohmer said those words took away the power of the Legislature to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. But the language seems to say that "this" - the constitutional right to bear arms - does not grant citizens the right to carry concealed weapons. Saying that the state constitution doesn't grant the right doesn't mean the Legislature can't. That latter interpretation makes sense in light of the way constitutions are written and the historical context of this provision.

For one thing, the Bill of Rights is a place to grant citizens rights, not take them away, as Judge Ohmer's interpretation would do. More important, history suggests that the Legislature adopted the 1875 provision to ensure the constitutionality of a concealed-weapons law it had passed the year before. St. Louis Judge Thomas T. Gantt, who explained the provision's purpose, said the language was needed because a court in another state had ruled that the right to bear arms prohibited the legislature from passing a law against concealed weapons.

Judge Gantt said wearing concealed guns was "fraught with the most incalculable evil." But he went on to say that the committee that wrote the wording "gave no sanction to the idea . . . that the right to bear arms shall not include the right to carry a pistol in the pocket or a bowie knife under the belt." Judge Ohmer points to Judge Gantt's double-negative statement as clear proof that the intent was "to not justify the wearing of concealed weapons." The words say quite the opposite - that hidden knives and guns are allowed.

If the constitution meant what Judge Ohmer says it means, a century of laws that permit police and prison guards to carry concealed weapons would be unconstitutional. But no one ever argued that. Nor did gun opponents or Gov. Bob Holden suggest the law was unconstitutional during legislative debate - even though the governor revised history last week by saying he had vetoed the bill because it was unconstitutional.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once stressed the importance of courts deferring to the judgment of legislatures: "If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell, I will help them," he said. "It's my job." The concealed-weapons bill may be a path to hell, but nothing in the constitution stands in the way.


Copyright © 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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