Proposed child endangerment measure drawing fire from gun-control opponents

Critics say county’s proposal conflicts with state gun laws

By EVAN YOUNG

An effort to prosecute child endangerment at the county level is drawing fire from some gun-control opponents.

The County Council last week delayed an initial vote on legislation that would add a section on child endangerment to the county’s petty offenses code after three gun-owner-rights supporters protested one of the pending law’s provisions.

The new county ordinance would prohibit behavior that threatens the “physical, mental and emotional health of a child” less than 17 years old. First District Councilman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 5th District Council Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University, are the bill’s co-sponsors.

Missouri law prohibits child endangerment, but the state doesn’t take every case, according to County Counselor Patricia Redington. The pending ordinance would give officials the teeth to prosecute child endangerment cases in the county courts, she said recently. 

The ordinance language identifies and prohibits the following behavior as child endangerment:

• “Intentionally or recklessly operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance while a child is present in the vehicle.”

• “Knowingly causing or permitting a child to be present where any person is selling, manufacturing, possessing or using a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia.”

• “Intentionally or recklessly committing an act of domestic assault or domestic violation of an order of protection in the visual or auditory presence of a child.”

• “Intentionally or recklessly storing or leaving a loaded firearm or an unloaded firearm and ammunition within the reach or easy access of a child unless such weapon is secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant safety device so as to render the weapon inoperable by anyone other than the lawfully authorized user.”

But gun-control opponents believe the fourth provision poses a threat to those who lawfully own firearms.

They contend the proposed ordinance conflicts with Missouri’s gun laws, which supersede all local ordinances.

Section 21.750 of the Missouri Revised Statutes states, in part, “The General Assembly hereby occupies and preempts the entire field of legislation touching in any way firearms, components, ammunition and supplies to the complete exclusion of any order, ordinance or regulation by any political subdivision of this state. Any existing or future orders, ordinances or regulations in this field are hereby and shall be null and void …

“No county, city, town, village, municipality or other political subdivision of this state shall adopt any order, ordinance or regulation concerning in any way the sale, purchase, purchase delay, transfer, ownership, use, keeping, possession, bearing, transportation, licensing, permit, registration, taxation other than sales and compensating use taxes or other controls on firearms, components, ammunition and supplies.”

The state statute only exempts local ordinances that govern unlawful possession of a firearm and regulate the “open carrying of firearms readily capable of lethal use or the discharge of firearms within a jurisdiction.”

Fred Heberer, president of the Second Amendment Coalition, predicted state officials would nullify the county law if it’s approved, and the county would have to “waste taxpayers’ money in a futile attempt to uphold it.”

“There is no way to write a law that would protect citizens from guns or anything else,” Heberer said during the Jan. 12 County Council meeting. “Anything that delays a homeowner’s access to a working firearm is dangerous because seconds count.”