Inside Missouri’s ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ fight
OZARK, Mo. — Brad Cole is a fiery defender of the Second Amendment, a set-jawed lawman with a lacquered alligator head on his desk, a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum on his hip and a signed picture of himself with former President Donald Trump on his office wall.
Cole, of Christian County, considers himself part of the constitutional sheriff movement, which contends that the federal government is subordinate to local authorities in most law-enforcement matters. Yet this year he found himself in the unusual position of pushing back against Republican state lawmakers ramming through a bill to punish local departments for collaborating with federal authorities on gun cases deemed to be in violation of Second Amendment rights.
“Anytime you take away a tool from us to do our job and protect the people we serve, well, I’m going to have a huge problem with that,” said Cole, a Republican who worked with several other sheriffs from deep-red southern Missouri to modify the bill before it passed in May on a party-line vote.
“It’s just a terribly written law,” he said.
Even with the changes, the Second Amendment Preservation Act represents a challenge to federal authority that Biden administration officials and other critics see as a clear-cut violation of the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which prohibits states from passing laws that nullify federal statutes.
Last month, the Justice Department filed an affidavit supporting an effort by the city and county of St. Louis to strike down the law in state court, saying it had already hamstrung weapons and drug investigations. The judge in the case recently rejected a request to keep the law from going into effect, and, in response, Attorney General Merrick Garland is considering a federal lawsuit, according to two administration officials.
At the heart of the law is an audacious declaration — that all state firearms laws “exceed” the federal government’s power to track, register and regulate guns and gun owners.
The law, however, is as vague as it is expansive: Its authors did not focus on any specific federal law or policy, and state officials say they will not try to stop federal agents from executing raids, conducting background checks for gun buyers or enforcing existing laws, like the prohibition on gun purchases by felons.
But the law features a provision, the first of its kind in the nation, that allows Missourians to sue local law departments that give “material aid and support” to federal agents — defined as data sharing, joint operations, even social media posts — in violation of citizens’ perceived Second Amendment rights.
The law’s sponsors say that mechanism is protective and proactive, intended to counter Democratic gun-control efforts, especially President Joe Biden’s attempts to ban semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. As one of its co-authors, state Sen. Eric Burlison, put it, the bill was intended to tell Democrats considering new restrictions to “pound sand.”
The law has put Missouri, a starkly polarized state controlled by an emboldened Republican Party, at the leading edge of a “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement that has increasingly gained traction in the volatile post-Trump era, as conservative activists press red-state governments to act more boldly on a range of culture-wars issues — from guns to ballot access to abortion — that ignite their base in defiance of the Democrats who now control Washington.
Chief among the activists pushing the Missouri gun law was Aaron Dorr, who leads a family-run, Iowa-based network of far-right nonprofits in the Midwest and South. In an interview, Dorr described himself as a defender of conservative values and cast the Missouri battle in national terms, as an effort to force Republican moderates to take up his broader cause of confronting Washington.
“Obviously, it’s about far more than simply gun rights,” Dorr said of his involvement.
At least eight other states, including West Virginia, have recently passed similar bills, but most are more symbolic and less far-reaching than Missouri’s, and feature more explicit carve-outs for coordination between local and federal law-enforcement agencies. The Missouri law has the sharpest teeth: the provision allowing citizens to sue any local police agency for $50,000 for every incident in which they can prove that their rights were violated, provided they were not flouting state law.
That reliance on citizens’ lawsuits — bypassing police officers and prosecutors who may be reluctant to pursue highly politicized criminal cases — represents another political strategy gaining popularity on the right, most notably in the highly restrictive Texas abortion law that the Supreme Court recently let stand.