JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – A Missouri judge denied a request Wednesday to stop election officials from distributing absentee ballots for a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with gun rights.
Although he declined to issue a temporary restraining order, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem said he will consider whether to rewrite the summary for the Aug. 5 ballot measure as requested in a lawsuit brought by the St. Louis police chief and a gun-control activist.
Absentee voting is to begin next Tuesday on the measure, which was referred to the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature.
The summary that legislators prepared will ask voters whether to amend the Missouri Constitution “to include a declaration that the right to keep and bear arms is an unalienable right and that the state government is obligated to uphold that right.”
It’s being challenged in court by St. Louis Police Chief Samuel Dotson III and Rebecca Morgan, a member of the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
According to the lawsuit, the summary wrongly implies that the measure is establishing a constitutional right, when one already exists. It also contends the summary fails to note that the measure would require strict legal scrutiny of any laws restricting gun rights, including those limiting the ability to carry concealed guns.
Attorney Chuck Hatfield, who filed the lawsuit, said the ballot summary is insufficient and unfair.
“The title says what’s already existing law it doesn’t tell the voters anything and then the title ignores all the things that are important, all the things that are actually changing,” Hatfield said.
Beetem rejected Hatfield’s request to block election officials from giving voters ballots containing the disputed wording while he considers the merits of the case. The judge gave no specific date for when he will rule on the request to rewrite the summary. But Beetem said some absentee votes may not be counted, if he decides to rewrite the ballot summary after some people already have voted.
Deputy Solicitor General Jeremiah Morgan, who represented the state, said the declaration of an “unalienable” right to bear arms and the obligation of state government to uphold that were substantive changes and thus an appropriate focus of the ballot summary.
The proposed constitutional amendment was sponsored by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who is chairman of a new campaign committee promoting the measure and is running for state attorney general in 2016.
Schaefer, who attended the hearing, said afterward that the proposed standard of “strict scrutiny” for gun-rights restrictions would be a significant change. But Schaefer said he believes that’s adequately conveyed by the summary’s wording about an “unalienable right” to bear arms.
Schaefer said the legal arguments against the ballot summary would be better made in a public campaign against the ballot measure itself. He said opponents were trying to “short-circuit that process, to keep that issue away from voters.”
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