- Missouri state Sen. Eric Burlison backs the bill that presumes ‘reasonableness’ in self-defense.
- Under current law, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show actions were reasonable.
- Supporters say the bill fixes a weakness. Opponents say the current law ‘works very well.’
A Missouri bill that prosecutors and other opponents dubbed the “Make Murder Legal Act” won’t become law after it failed to make it out of a legislative committee.
The bill, which ran into bipartisan opposition in the state Senate, would’ve changed the state’s “stand your ground” law to presume self-defense when a person uses deadly force.
The bill introduced this month by Missouri state Sen. Eric Burlison, a Republican, drew opposition from prosecutors, law enforcement and groups that advocate for stricter gun control. They said it would make it harder to police violent crime, and bog down overburdened courts with extra hearings.
Proponents, though, said it would shore up what they see as weaknesses in Missouri’s legal standard for using deadly force and strengthen “innocent until proven guilty” protections into state law.
The bill has been linked to two cases that have captured national attention.
Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis man who gained fame when he and his wife were photographed outside their home in June 2020 pointing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators, testified in favor of the bill at a committee hearing this month.
McCloskey, now a U.S. Senate candidate, and his wife received a pardon from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson after pleading guilty to misdemeanor crimes.
A Democrat on the committee said the bill could position Missouri to exonerate killers such as those who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Three white men who claimed self-defense were convicted in the murder of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, and now face federal charges.
Bill flips burden of proof to prosecutors
Under current Missouri law, someone who uses deadly force must prove they “reasonably believed physical or deadly force was necessary to protect him or herself.” Senate Bill 666 shifted the legal burden to prosecutors.
It would presume that deadly force was necessary when someone used it, and prosecutors would have to provide “clear and convincing evidence” in a pretrial hearing to press charges.
The bill offered civil immunity for someone who uses deadly force in self-defense.
Burlison, whose party holds a supermajority in the Missouri legislature, did not respond to a request for comment. His chief of staff, Steve Helms, told USA TODAY in an email that the bill is meant to protect against “rogue prosecutors seeking to pursue their own political agenda against the Second Amendment.”
The bill is similar to laws in other states, including California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, that have replaced a “reasonable person” standard with a “presumption of reasonableness,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In a “reasonable person” standard, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show their actions were reasonable. When reasonableness is presumed, prosecutors must prove a negative.
Helms said the Missouri bill is patterned after Florida’s law but “is not as aggressive” because it doesn’t allow defendants to recoup attorneys fees if they are exonerated in a civil action.
The Missouri Senate’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety voted 4-3 to not advance the bill on Thursday. The bill will not reappear this session.
Responses to the bill
During a committee hearing on the bill this month, Missouri Sen. Brian Williams, a Democrat, called the bill “one of the most offensive pieces of legislation I have ever seen in my life” and warned that it could set up Missouri to let killers like those who murdered Arbery to go free.
“Encouraging people to use guns to solve conflict is not how we do things in this state, and we should not enable laws that do that,” he said. “That’s exactly what this bill is promoting.”
McCloskey, a lawyer, said the bill would simply force prosecutors to prove that an individual was not acting in self-defense, as he said he was when he brandished a gun in response to racial injustice protesters.
The McCloskey case was among those that inspired Second Amendment activists to push for the Missouri legislation, said Aaron Dorr, political director for the Missouri Firearms Coalition.
“This is a very reasonable bill, and it’s time the Republicans remember that gun owners vote in primaries, and they want to see action on this bill this session,” he said.
Opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors, he said, has come from politically appointed heads of departments in Democratically controlled cities.
Kevin Hillman, a prosecutor in Pulaski County – a small county in south-central Missouri – does not fit that description.
“I consider myself a very conservative, unwoke prosecutor and a Republican,” said Hillman during testimony against the bill. “I took off my personal firearm to come into this building today, which I wear every day.”
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials urged state lawmakers to shelve the legislation. During a Feb. 1 committee hearing on the bill, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys testified against it alongside representatives for Missouri sheriffs, police chiefs and the Fraternal Order of Police.
“There’s nothing wrong with the self-defense law in Missouri,” said Dan Patterson, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. “It works very well and has for a number of years.”
Patterson said the bill would “stymie law enforcement” efforts to investigate violent crime and “tips the scales in favor of criminal defendants.” It also would further slow Missouri’s overstocked court dockets, adding pretrial hearings to determine if the defendant can claim self-defense, he said.
“It’s just not necessary for public safety,” he said.
Law enforcement officials said the legislation was problematic for their investigations.
“We’re trying to catch bad guys. Unfortunately, there are bad people in this world that do bad things,” said Shawn Rhoads, a lobbyist for Missouri Sheriffs United, during committee testimony. “Some people obviously don’t have bad intentions. Some people have real bad intentions. This would be a lot harder to decipher those, especially for law enforcement.”
Nimrod Chapel, president of the Missouri NAACP, told USA TODAY the bill would “create a culture of death.”
Chapel, an attorney, is representing the family of Justin King, a Black and Filipino man whose death at the hands of a neighbor last year in a Missouri town about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis was ruled a justifiable homicide. Coroners ruled King was shot as he tried to force his way into his neighbor’s home, according to NBC News, but the family has disputed that.
“This will have a chilling effect on the ability of law enforcement to do their work, of communities to root out killers,” Chapel said. “I don’t believe anyone wants killers in their community.”