JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri legislators who appeared locked and loaded for a high-stakes fight with U.S. officials over gun-control policies backed away from a showdown at the last moment by sustaining a veto of a bill attempting to invalidate certain federal firearms laws.
The Republican-backed bill ultimately was doomed by the top GOP leaders of the state Senate, who cited concerns that the measure could have hindered local law enforcement efforts and infringed on free-speech rights.
Senators voted 22-12 for the veto override Wednesday night, falling a single vote shy of the required two-thirds majority. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Majority Leader Ron Richard split from the rest of the GOP caucus to instead sustain Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto.
The override attempt already had passed the Republican-led House 109-49, getting the bare minimum number of votes needed.
The legislation had declared that any federal policies that "infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms" shall be invalid in Missouri. It would have created state misdemeanor charges against federal authorities who attempted to enforce those laws or anyone who published the identity of a gun owner. Another provision could have allowed police and prosecutors to be targeted with lawsuits for attempting to enforce the nullified laws.
The Missouri legislation was one of the boldest examples in a nationwide movement among states to nullify federal laws with which local officials disagree. A recent analysis by The Associated Press found that about four-fifths of the states now have enacted laws that directly reject or conflict with federal laws on marijuana use, gun control, health insurance requirements and identification standards for driver's licenses.
After scuttling the Missouri bill, Dempsey and Richard both professed their devotion to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, their love of hunting and their history of supporting pro-gun legislation.
"However, I have reached a point where, in my view, political prudence and good public policy have parted ways, and I have been forced to pick which path I will follow," Dempsey, of St. Charles, said in a written explanation of his vote.
"My love of the Second Amendment didn't trump my love of the First Amendment," he told reporters.
The gun bill was one of the highest profile measures among Nixon's 33 vetoes this year. Missouri lawmakers overrode 10 of them, the greatest single-year total in Missouri since 1833 when a different constitution only required a simple majority. But lawmakers also failed to override Nixon's veto of a sweeping income tax cut, giving him victories on the two most hard-fought measures.
Nixon vetoed the gun bill in July while warning that it infringed on First Amendment free-speech rights and also violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives precedence to federal laws over conflicting state ones.
On Wednesday, Nixon touted his personal gun ownership while praising the Senate for stopping what he described as an "unnecessary, unconstitutional and unsafe nullification bill."
Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, also had raised concerns about the ramifications of a potential veto override. He said a court likely would have struck down the nullification provision but could have left intact other sections that could have prevented police from cooperating with federal authorities on crimes involving guns. He said the bill also could have opened Missouri police to potential lawsuits from criminals if they referred gun-related cases to federal agents.
Sen. Brian Nieves, a chief backer of the bill, accused Koster of lying about the legislation in a smear campaign that he said "literally scares the bejesus out of our great law enforcement community."
"This fight ain't over, it ain't over, it ain't over," said Nieves, a Republican from Washington, Mo. "We'll be back to visit it again" in the 2014 session.
Dempsey said he would help "fast-track" a gun-rights bill next year that attempts to address his concerns.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Missouri Press Association both had threatened to immediately file lawsuits if the veto override had succeeded.
The National Rifle Association remained publicly silent about the bill, declining to answer repeated questions from the media about whether it supported or opposed the measure.
The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Doug Funderburk, of suburban St. Louis, had described the measure as an attempt to "push back the tyranny of an out of control and incompetent federal government."
Other parts of the bill would have lowered Missouri's concealed-gun permit age to 19 instead of 21 and allowed specially trained teachers or administrators to serve as a "school protection officer" able to carry a concealed gun.
Gun bill is HB436.