After judge strikes gun law, Missouri Republicans seek to give sheriffs power over feds

Missouri Republicans are pushing a proposal to give local sheriffs sweeping power, including over federal investigations in their counties, just weeks after a federal judge struck down a state law that tried to nullify some federal gun laws.

The proposed constitutional amendment would enshrine the office of county sheriff in the Missouri Constitution, and require the sheriff to oversee all federal and state investigations in their particular county. It would require all counties that currently have sheriffs to maintain the position as an elected office.

Although the amendment was introduced in early February, GOP senators didn’t act on the measure at all until late March. Then on Wednesday, the Missouri Senate General Laws Committee held a hearing.

The sudden movement on the amendment, in the final weeks of the annual session, comes after U.S. District Court Judge Brian Wimes ruled on March 7 that the Missouri Second Amendment Preservation Act violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which ensures federal law trumps state law.

The state law declared certain federal gun laws invalid if they don’t have a state-level equivalent. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, has said the state will appeal the decision.

“What we’ve been witnessing across the country is a weaponization of our legal system,” freshman state Sen. Jill Carter, a Granby Republican who filed the amendment, said Wednesday during a news conference about the legislation.

Carter didn’t directly link her measure to the federal court decision, but said her proposal would ensure that sheriffs have the power “to stand in the gap against the federal government and any overreach between the federal government and the state.”

But critics of the proposed amendment say it will almost certainly run into legal trouble if enacted under the same grounds that undercut the Second Amendment Preservation Act. The federal Supremacy Clause establishes that federal law supersedes state law.

“I’m not sure in what world we would be living in if the local sheriff could oversee an investigation by a federal agency,” said Michael Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge from 1998 to 2011 who served two years as chief justice. “I think a civics class would be in order.”

When asked how the court ruling would affect the legislation’s legal standing, state Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and likely candidate for governor, told reporters he was “prepared to have those conversations and win those fights.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, whose term ends in 2025, is the former sheriff of Polk County.

The proposed amendment fits squarely within the national right-wing “constitutional sheriff” movement, which views sheriffs as a key backstop against perceived encroachments on liberty and constitutional freedoms. “Constitutional sheriffs” may refuse to enforce laws they believe are unconstitutional, and the movement has accelerated in recent years amid anger over pandemic restrictions, unfounded fears of federal gun confiscations and baseless election conspiracy theories.

In Kansas, Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, a Republican, has been conducting a long-running investigation into elections. No charges have been filed and he has acknowledged he lacks probable cause to bring cases. Hayden last year spoke about the investigation at a convention of the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association, a “constitutional sheriffs” group, in Las Vegas.

In November, Kansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires counties to maintain a sheriff as an elected position. It doesn’t apply to the one county in Kansas without a sheriff, Riley County. It prohibits county governments from having an appointed sheriff or eliminating the position of sheriff altogether.

The amendment sailed through, with 61% of voters approving.

Representatives from several Missouri sheriff’s offices, including Cass County, Hickory County and Osage County, attended Wednesday’s news conference in support of the legislation.

“The men and women that are sheriffs across our state understand the importance of having us be moved to a constitutional position,” Osage County Sheriff Michael Bonham said Wednesday. “Therefore we are able to stand in the gap as the only elected law enforcement official in the state.”

Bonham pointed to concerns about the FBI planning to conduct audits of police agencies’ concealed carry weapons permits in 2022. Then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt blasted the FBI for the planned audit at the time. Schmitt is now in the U.S. Senate.

But the FBI told The Star in 2022 that the Missouri audit was a routine inspection that Missouri had undergone multiple times and would not involve access to lists of state-approved concealed carry holders.

Missouri Democrats told The Star that the Republican-led proposal would give county sheriffs vast and unwarranted levels of power.

“The primary duties of sheriffs are to enforce the law and maintain the county jail. Sheriffs don’t get to decide what the law is and unilaterally determine who is guilty of violating it…And sheriffs don’t get to violate the U.S. Constitution and take control of federal investigations in their jurisdictions,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said in a statement.

“If you want to turn Missouri counties into dictatorships controlled by the local sheriff, (this legislation) is exactly how you do it.”