ATF file

Local fire and law enforcement officials work with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives following a home explosion in St. Joseph in 2017. Local law enforcement is concerned that a bill in the Missouri Legislature will make it harder to work with federal agents on investigations.

When the Buchanan County Drug Strike Force makes an arrest, a federal officer might be nowhere to be seen.

But a federal presence could loom in the background. That’s because multijurisdictional drug task forces, like the Strike Force in Buchanan County or NITRO in Northwest Missouri, have officers who are assigned to federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They aren’t federal agents, but they have authority to enforce federal law.

Area law enforcement officials fear this arrangement, used to investigate and prosecute drug and violent crime throughout the area, could fall victim to legislation that seeks to blunt the ability to enforce federal gun laws in Missouri.

“If you just do an umbrella-type law that says, in general, we are not able to work with federal agencies who enforce or investigate illegal gun laws or illegal gun crimes, that is going to hinder us from being able to do our job effectively,” said Strike Force Capt. Shawn Collie. “We would like some clarification.”

The Missouri House passed legislation last month that would prohibit local and state law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws. The sponsor of House Bill 85 likens the measure to municipalities and states that refuse to enforce U.S. immigration laws under anti-commandeering doctrine. Those laws are still on the books, but local authorities don’t assist. That would be the case with federal gun laws if House Bill 85, known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act, passed the Senate and was signed into law.

The sponsor, state Rep. Jered Taylor, said the bill is necessary because of the threat of more expansive gun control from the administration of President Joe Biden.

“We’re seeing a threat that we’ve never really faced,” said Taylor, R-Republic. “I think we’re going to have to operate a little bit differently if we want to protect our Second Amendment rights.”

Local law enforcement officials like Collie and Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox express strong support for citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Cox, in a blog post on the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office website, said he can’t envision a scenario where deputies in his county would seize weapons from law-abiding citizens, regardless of the laws coming from Washington.

“This is not going to happen with this office as long as I am here,” he writes. Cox was not available for an interview.

But these local officers find that House Bill 85 puts them in an ambiguous no-man’s land between the absolutes of gun control on one hand and Second Amendment rights on the other. They see the benefit of federal assistance, especially since local resources are limited.

“The federal agencies basically are adding manpower and financial resources that help us be able to close out cases and bring those cases to justice,” Collie said. “We want to know what this bill is in its entirety.”

Would the bill, which references the registration or tracking of firearms as an infringement, allow local officers to access a federal database to determine if a weapon was used in a previous crime? Collie said that’s helped solve some big crime investigations in the past.

Would local officers be able to transfer a case to federal court if the evidence supports it? Collie is even unsure if he could call in the ATF if someone finds a suspected bomb.

Taylor said the bill doesn’t prevent federal authorities from helping local law enforcement, but he said cases involving guns would most likely have to be tried in state courts. That’s of deep concern to Cox, who said in his blog post that criminals know they’re likely to spend more time in federal custody for major crimes.

“The only thing Mexican drug trafficking organizations, Antifa and violent criminals fear is prosecution through the federal court where they will have to serve 85% of their time,” he wrote.

Critics feel the bill could be punitive toward law enforcement. Lawmakers struck a controversial provision that would have held officers personally liable for enforcing federal gun laws, but the measure as it stands now would levy a penalty of no less than $50,000 on a local agency or government entity found to employ an “individual acting as an official, agent, employee or deputy of the government of the United States” that infringes on Second Amendment rights.

To Cox, that could jeopardize an entity like NITRO. “Those entities cannot wear two hats ... and not be directly in violation of SAPA,” he wrote.

Taylor said he doesn’t think the bill would put units like the Strike Force and NITRO out of business, although he believes contracts may need to outline clear parameters on what local officers can and can’t do regarding guns. “We’re working with law enforcement, and I’m open to making changes to the bill to address some of those concerns,” Taylor said.

The problem for some officers is that it’s hard to separate drug trafficking, violent crime and guns.

“Over the last few years, that’s something that really has seemed to increase, our criminal element possessing firearms,” Collie said.

At the least, Collie fears cumbersome legal reviews that could bog down future investigations if officers have to worry more about SAPA compliance than finding bad guys.

“We are in full support of the right for our citizens to be able to lawfully possess firearms,” he said. “We also need the support from our community to be able to go after those individuals involved in illegal firearms, violent crimes, drug crimes.”

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.

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