Missouri's legislature refused to consider any gun law changes in year since high school shooting
Lawmakers in Jefferson City did not take up any gun restrictions during the 2023 legislative session, despite pleas from students affected by the south St. Louis school shooting. Two people, a 15-year-old sophomore and a health teacher, were killed, seven others were injured, and hundreds were left traumatized.
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Megan Green, then an alderwoman, was at her home in Tower Grove South on the morning of Oct. 24, 2022, when her phone started going crazy with news of a school shooting nearby.
“From constituents to people at City Hall … hitting me up to say, ‘Hey, this is happening,’” she recalled.
A 19-year-old had forced his way into the campus at Arsenal and Kingshighway shared by two magnet high schools — Central Visual and Performing Arts and Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience — and opened fire with a rifle.
The shooting left two people dead, 15-year-old Alexzandria Bell, a CVPA sophomore, and Jean Kuczka, the school’s health and physical education teacher and the coach of Collegiate’s cross-country team. Seven others were injured, and hundreds of students, teachers and other staff at the two schools were traumatized.
Green and other local elected officials, including St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, saw the shooting as tragic but inevitable given the state of gun restrictions in Missouri and the U.S. as a whole.
“Our children shouldn't have to experience this,” Jones said at a briefing early on the day of the shooting. “They shouldn't have to go through active shooter drills in case something happens. And unfortunately, that happened today.”
A series of coincidences helped limit the carnage. The schools are less than a mile from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s South Patrol headquarters. Other officers were in the area attending a funeral. The SWAT team was already together for a training exercise, allowing it to respond quickly. One of the St. Louis Public Schools security officers on duty that day was armed.
Officers located and killed the shooter, a former CVPA student, less than 10 minutes after arriving on the scene. But as the investigation progressed, it became clear that the entire tragedy could have been prevented.
The shooter’s family knew he had mental health issues, said Michael Sack, then the interim police chief.
They regularly monitored his mail and checked his room. He had been committed in the past for inpatient treatment.
“Whenever they noticed him stepping out of line or going out of turn they always worked to get him back on his medication, back on therapy, whatever he needed,” he said.
And when family members became aware he had a gun — the same one later used in the shooting — they called police.
“The mother wanted it out of the house,” Sack said. But, Missouri doesn’t have a way for police to seize firearms from people who could be a threat to themselves or others — what’s known as a red flag law.
The most they could do was transfer the gun to an adult who could legally have it.
“I've got to give credit to the family. They made every effort that they felt that they reasonably could,” Sack said. “And I think that’s why the mother is so heartbroken for the families that paid for his episode.”
Students demand action
Students and teachers from CVPA traveled to Jefferson City in February. Their goal was to talk to lawmakers not only about how the shooting changed their lives, but what they wanted them to do about it.
“I'm angry,” said student April Shepard. “I might not visibly show it. But every time I see somebody walk past me, a legislator, somebody who can change it but refuses to, I get upset. My friend shouldn't have to jump out of a window so they can live to see another day.”
For many students, including Jaiyana Stallworth, passing a red flag law was something they wanted to see happen.
“If there's any kind of history there, like any sort of just alarm going off, that maybe you can't handle the responsibility, you don't get the responsibility,” Stallworth said. “Kind of like, if you can't have a puppy, you shouldn't have a puppy, except it's a gun.”
State Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, whose district includes the schools, didn’t take much time to act. The first bill he filed for the 2023 session would have established a red flag law.
“I found the same one that the Republican legislature in Florida did. So it's pretty conservative, gives a lot of due process to make sure a person, that if the claims aren't justified, they can get their guns back,” Merideth said.
Merideth said he believed it was his responsibility to file not only that bill but other legislation centered on gun control.
“As their representative, it's my job to be their voice, as much as I'm capable of being. And so I'm doing my best to do that. But I wish it were more effective,” Merideth said.
In addition to the red flag law, Merideth filed other gun control legislation, including establishing universal background checks and raising the age to possess a firearm to 21.
However, in the Republican-led House of Representatives, Merideth’s bills didn’t even get a hearing. No bill establishing any gun control in the state moved forward this past session in either chamber.
Merideth’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, also filed a red flag law. Her bill also didn’t get a hearing.
“My colleagues, we were trying to at least get the bill heard, in order for students to be heard. Because anytime you have trauma, the best medicine for that trauma is to be heard,” May said. “And they didn't even have the decency to allow a bill to have a hearing.”
As to what the legislature has done as a response to the shooting, lawmakers approved Gov. Mike Parson’s budget item of $50 million for school safety grants.
“As friends and families mourn, community grieves and a school tries to continue on without a valued and beloved teacher and student, we must commit ourselves to ensuring our schools are safe,” Parson said in January during his State of the State address.
But as far as what else the state can do in response to the shooting, Parson was not supportive of a red flag law.
“I think the red flag law, it's more of a political statement and that's what drives everybody apart, when you start going down those roads,” Parson said in January.
State Rep. Jon Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, the House majority floor leader, says he isn’t sure any specific law would have prevented the shooting. He also believes that the potential negatives of a red flag law outweigh the positives. He’s also not sure how effective they would be.
“There's no doubt that it might stop someone from doing something at a particular time. But to say that it would take away gun violence or really make a huge difference. I think there's really not that much evidence to support that,” Patterson said.
Patterson says he doesn’t see any bill that limits access to firearms having a chance of passing. He believes the Republican-led legislature should address the causes of crime, such as poverty.
“We're constantly trying to do things that make companies want to move to St. Louis, moving to Kansas City to employ people with strong family supporting jobs. I think those are the kinds of things that would do more to reduce gun violence to any sort of House bill,” Patterson said.
At the end of this past session, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, bristled at the idea that the legislature didn’t take action following the shooting.
“We outlined that we wanted to attack crime, that we want to hold the perpetrators of crime accountable. This is what we're doing,” Plocher said. “Guns don't kill people, people kill people. There's a mental health crisis, we've addressed some of that and our legislation this year,”
Merideth is tired of Republicans shifting the conversation on gun violence.
“You point to the problem. The problem is obviously gun violence. OK, so let's address the guns,” Merideth said. “Nope, we can't do guns. It's a mental health issue. OK, fine. We can agree, let's address mental health. And they do nothing. The fact is, they're just making excuses.”
Patterson pointed to a new mental health facility in Kansas City that lawmakers approved funding for this past session.
“That's the kind of investment that we're willing to make to address mental health. And I think addressing mental health like that will make it so that maybe one more person is not out on the street with a weapon that's going to do something bad,” Patterson said.
Local government tries to fill the gap
The St. Louis school district applied for a share of the safety funding, which was targeted at “physical security upgrades and associated technologies, bleeding control kits, and automated external defibrillators.” The district received $300,000 to put security film on some first-floor windows.
The district also boosted its security budget by $2.5 million for video surveillance and intrusion alarms and expanded its various training on crisis prevention and active shooters.
With broader policy action at the state level unlikely, especially with the 2024 election nearing, local officials are trying to step in using their limited power.
“Jefferson City politicians like to think that they have the answer to all of Missouri's problems," Patterson said. "I don't think that's always the case. I think there's a lot of things that have to be done at the local level.”
But under Missouri law, the state has total authority over gun regulations, except in some narrow areas. Green and her colleagues at the Board of Aldermen are considering a number of bills they believe fit into those loopholes, like a ban on machine guns and certain types of ammunition, or on the sale or transfer of guns to someone under age 18. The bills have the support of Jones.
“He had a military-grade weapon,” Jones said of the shooter. “And if that were prohibited by local law, then we can hopefully prohibit other military grade weapons on our streets.”
But the maximum punishment for a violation of the ordinances will be a $500 fine and 90 days in jail, or a fine and community service for juveniles. And most of the other bills are meant to keep guns out of the hands of minors — which wouldn’t have applied to the shooter.
Aldermen have also introduced a series of regulations that would take effect if local governments regain the right to pass their own gun laws. But a local red flag law cannot be among them, Green said.
“One of the complications is that our municipal court system would not be authorized to enforce such a law or enforce penalties around such a law,” she said.
On the actions St. Louis has taken so far, May said any form of gun control is a good thing but worries about a backlash in Jefferson City.
“I applaud them for what they were able to get done. But my concern is the Missouri legislature's reaction to what they were able to get done. So that's something that we're going to have to fight and deal with on that level,” May said.
In Missouri, activists often take issues that are popular with voters but not lawmakers to the ballot via initiative petitions. Merideth said that could be feasible for a red flag law.
“I think that they're popular in our state. And I think if we could gather the signatures, they all have a path to pass on a political level right now,” Merideth said.
The city has more control over its finances, and Green wants to make a bigger investment in mental health care.
“We've heard from our young people over and over and over again that they see their friends hurting, and they need more support,” she said.
Immediately after the shooting, the city’s health department established a series of goals, including plans for bi-weekly meetings to improve school-based behavioral health interventions.
Jones did not have an update on those specific policy goals but praised the city’s Behavioral Health Bureau, which just marked a year in existence.
“They have been making a difference,” she said. “Call volumes have gone up from approximately 10 to 25 per week.”
Julie Gray, the bureau’s chief, said in a statement marking the milestone that it would be “partnering with St. Louis Public Schools to provide education around mental health and substance abuse.”
The district promised to make counselors available for as long as students and staff at CVPA and CSMB needed them. Its foundation helped coordinate the donations and partnerships to make that happen.
But Byron Clemens, a spokesman for American Federation of Teachers Local 420 that represents teachers and staff in the district, wants that support available before a similar tragedy happens.
“We've long advocated for having a counselor in every school, a social worker in every school, and a nurse in every school,” he said.
There’s no way to know whether that could have prevented the tragedy that occurred, Clemens said, but making additional resources available to students and families may help.
The shooting at the high schools happened on Clemens’ birthday, which means a day of celebration will always be colored by sadness going forward. But despite the darkness, he said, some good emerged.
“We were focused like a laser for a short period of time on the surrounding issues,” he said. “But we need to continue to do it and keep the focus on trying to protect children and families from gun violence.”
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