My topic today was virtually ignored by our supposedly"liberal" mainstream press three years ago. By the way, with the emergence and widespread popularity of the Fox (Faux) News Network and the corporatization of our major media outlets, how can anyone argue our mainstream media is liberal anymore? How can anyone who lived through the events of the Clinton impeachment, the election of 2000 and the flag-waving of the last few months ever believe that? And we all know that Bernard Goldberg and David Brock (in Brock's case both in the past and at present) are just in it for the money anyway so don't believe anything they say. But I digress.
I am going to write about the little-reported failure of the"right to carry" concealed weapon law in Missouri in April of 1999. Like Michael Bellesiles's controversial (and political hot-potato) book, the defeat of right to carry in Missouri challenges a lot of the assumptions about the supposedly pro-gun culture in America. The battle over the concealed weapon law, called Proposition B on the April 1999 ballot, was fierce. The National Rifle Association (NRA) as well as most of the major Republican politicians (including U.S. Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond) in Missouri lined up to support Proposition B. Ashcroft even recorded NRA-financed commercials for the measure. Opponents of Proposition B included Missouri's Governor Mel Carnahan (who would defeat Ashcroft in November of 2000 despite the fact he was no longer among the living) as well as several liberal and anti-gun groups in St. Louis and Kansas City.
It was, in many ways, a David versus Goliath battle. The anti-Proposition B forces had very little money to spend on advertising (under $300,000) and the NRA poured several million dollars worth of advertising into the state's media markets to promote the measure. One couldn't turn on the radio anywhere in the state during the spring of 1999 without hearing a pro-Proposition B ad. The same could not be said for ads opposing the measure, which were seldom heard outside of St. Louis and Kansas City. Considering the conservative reputation of the state and the huge advertising money disparity, the measure was expected to pass easily.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Prop B celebration. On April 6, 1999, Proposition B was defeated -- which shocked the measure's proponents who had expected an overwhelming victory. It was defeated by a fairly narrow margin of about 44,000 votes out of a total of 1.3 million. Opponents of right to carry legislature claim the defeat of the measure in an"off-cycle" election shows Missourians do not support such laws and contend that the margin of defeat in a much higher turnout election (such as a general election in November) would be much greater --especially if opponents had a larger advertising budget. Proponents of right to carry claim they won 104 of Missouri's 114 counties, so their views represent the true"hearts of souls" of Missourians. Of course, the 10 counties that voted against the measure (including, by the way, my own sparsely populated rural county) have a combined population much greater than that of the combined population of the 104 that favored it but that doesn't seem to make much difference to those who often use this geographic argument to claim they"really" won in April of 1999.
What this vote revealed was a profound rural-urban split in the opinions of Missourians on this issue. Urban Missourians, who I would argue have a great deal more experience with gun crime, were against the measure while rural Missourians, who probably don't have such experience, supported it. Therefore, it is no surprise that Missouri's legislature is now proposing to revive right to carry since rural Missouri is actually over-represented in the legislature by a factor of around 2-1.
Regardless, the Missouri defeat caused gun advocacy groups to change strategies. Before, they had insisted that Missourians wanted concealed weapons laws and generally welcomed plebiscites on gun issues. Since the defeat of Proposition B, the gun lobby in Missouri no longer lobbies for referendums anymore. As evidence of this shift, just a couple of weeks ago, a referendum proposal for right to carry was defeated in the legislature fairly soundly. In fact, the argument for right to carry in Missouri now is pretty astonishing -- and very disingenuous. Right to carry proponents claim that, like during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s that led to a recognition of the civil rights of African-Americans and women, the average citizen is biased against those who now advocate the" civil rights of gun owners." Like in the 1960s, this argument goes, the average citizen cannot be trusted to be true to the Constitution and support civil (gun) rights, so the gun lobby no longer trusts them. As Marc Anderson, a supporter of right to carry put it just the other day in a legislative hearing,"If you let the people of Missouri speak on civil rights, women and blacks might not be voting today." Isn't that an amazing argument? Of course, I'm sure most of these lily white conservative gun rights supporters in Missouri would've been in favor of supporting the civil rights of African-Americans in the 1960s, right? Sigh.
Therefore, to avoid involving actual Missouri voters, the NRA and the gun lobby in the state is now working exclusively with state legislators. It appears that even the NRA knows that democracy will likely lead them down the road to defeat so they are sending lobbyists to grease the palms of legislators with campaign contributions. However, much to the NRA's relief it now appears the Missouri legislature is going to give them the law they were seeking in 1999. While Missouri was the only state bold enough to ask its citizens' opinion on this issue, it now appears the legislature is quite happy to ignore it. The last potential hope that the will of the people will be respected is that Missouri's Governor, Bob Holden, will veto the measure once it is passed. However, he's shown signs of waffling in the past few days.
I would argue that the defeat of the concealed weapon law in 1999 shows that even in a fairly conservative state like Missouri that citizens are not in favor of overly conservative gun laws -- even in a state that, I might remind you, sent John Ashcroft to the Senate! In fact, in a related side note, Ashcroft's support for the measure certainly helped contribute to his defeat a year later when voters in urban areas voted overwhelmingly for his opponent who, it must be added, had no pulse. Everywhere one looked in the fall of 2000 in rural areas and small towns in Missouri there were NRA-distributed bumper stickers that said"Ashcroft for Freedom" on the back of every dilapidated pickup -- even those of tax protesters that didn't have license plates. So, while the gun lobby clearly backed Ashcroft, most Missouri voters didn't. In another related development, it also is interesting to point out that while Missourians voted for Bush by a significant margin in 2000, they appear to have rejected Ashcroft as being too far to the right of even Missouri's political"mainstream." However, Bush does not appear to have taken much note of this fact when appointing him Attorney-General a few weeks later. The defeat of the concealed weapon law in Missouri certainly challenges the assumption that voters in Midwestern states are overwhelmingly in support of right to carry. At the very least it shows that Americans, even in the right-of-center heartland, can have different opinions on the issue.
Of course, ultimately the saddest thing may be that, even though the voters in Missouri have spoken on the issue, the legislature is likely to ignore such annoying things as the people's opinion. The right to carry bill is rolling through both houses of the legislature as we speak. I'm sure the bill is being lubricated along by significant cash contributions by the NRA to state legislators. It should be no surprise that state legislatures are getting in on the action since we currently have an administration whose energy, economic, and tax policies are set by the highest bidder in campaign contributions. The NRA is going to get its law. They've paid for this one twice. It would be terrible to disappoint them again -- the opinion of the people be damned. It certainly tells you just how much the NRA and the gun lobby now believes in democracy -- at least if they think democracy stands in the way of getting what they want.