The great city of St. Louis has a major problem with gun violence. Even as homicide rates have continued to decline elsewhere in the country, they have surged in St. Louis, which last year saw a 33 percent rise in killing, to 159 in a city of 318,000. (Note: this does not include the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which is in St. Louis County, a separate jurisdiction with 1 million people.) Criminologists point to all the usual reasons for the violence: a thriving drug trade, high unemployment among young men, and so on. But a New York Times article on Tuesday noted that St. Louis police are contending with a factor that their counterparts in many other high-crime cities are not: exceedingly lax gun laws. The Times reports:
Missouri, with a strongly pro-gun population outside the big cities, has permissive laws including one that allows the carrying of a loaded gun in a car without a permit. When the police discover a gun in a car with several passengers, including some with felony records, but no one admits to owning the gun, criminal charges are often impossible, [University of Missouri–St. Louis criminologist Richard] Rosenfeld said.
In addition, according to a 2014 study by Mr. Rosenfeld and his colleagues, a majority of those who are convicted of illegally possessing a gun but not caught using it in a crime receive probation rather than jail time. Gun laws and enforcement are stiffer in many other cities.
No, you did not misread this. In many big cities, a fundamental element in law enforcement’s efforts to reduce shootings is to get guns off the streets and apprehend those who are unlawfully toting them around. But in St. Louis, police who pull over someone cruising around with a loaded gun or two in the car are often unable to do anything about it.
Are the young toughs of St. Louis in cahoots with lawmakers and lobbyists at the state capital in Jefferson City? No, but they might as well be. The state has exceptionally weak gun laws, a reflection of the rural, conservative nature of Missouri beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, a swath of small towns and open spaces where it doesn’t seem crazy for someone to be driving with a shotgun in his truck without a permit.
That the law has vastly more serious implications in the urban setting of St. Louis—and that state lawmakers have not allowed the city to carve out gun-law exceptions for itself—is just an extreme example of the plight faced by this heavily Democratic, half-black Rust Belt city in a state that has been tilting increasingly red. (After Barack Obama lost Missouri by fewer than 4,000 votes in 2008, he lost it by a whopping 258,000 votes four years later.) At one point in time, St. Louis and its urban counterpart at the other end of the state, Kansas City, held enormous sway in state government through their sheer size. But St. Louis, in particular, has shrunk dramatically (it was the country’s eighth-largest city in the country in 1950 with more than 850,000 people), making it ever more subject to the whims of an increasingly conservative rural and exurban state electorate.
Health care is another example. St. Louis, with more than a quarter of its population living under the poverty line, would benefit greatly from the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which raises eligibility to 138 percent of the poverty line, or $33,465 for a family of four. But the Republican-dominated Missouri Legislature has blocked Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s efforts to accept the expansion, so St. Louis, and the rest of the state, is left with one of the most stringent eligibility thresholds in the country: Parents of dependent children can earn no more than 23 percent of the poverty level to be eligible for coverage—that is, the grand sum of $5,577 for a family of four, or essentially indigent. Childless, nondisabled adults cannot qualify at all, regardless of income.
There are of course other Democratic-leaning cities with large minority populations in Republican-dominated states—think of New Orleans; Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; or Houston, all places where the divides between red and blue America are very much an intrastate matter. But St. Louis stands out among them in one key way: It sits on the very edge of its state and directly adjacent to a solidly blue state, Illinois—after all, its smaller, like-named cousin across the Mississippi River, East St. Louis, is in the Land of Lincoln. Heck, look at a map and you’ll see that St. Louis juts right into Illinois.
Which is why one cannot help but ask: Would St. Louis, Missouri, be better off becoming West East St. Louis, Illinois?
As it happens, I’m not the first person to suggest this. Bill McClellan, a longtime metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has on several occasions floated the idea. “Such a move would make sense on many levels,” he wrote in 2005. “The rest of Missouri wouldn’t miss us. Certainly not the new governor [Matt Blunt, a Republican]. He’s the fellow who said that Democrats in Missouri only live where nobody wants to live. He was talking about West East St. Louis. We’re an island of blue in a red state. That’s a problem. We’re trying to build a ‘biotech corridor’ and the legislature is trying to criminalize stem cell research.” He went further in a 2011 column:
All we ever do is fight. This marriage is not worth saving. Let’s split and get on with our lives. … Many of us in West East St. Louis have seen enough of this legislative session to know we want out. The legislators in Jefferson City want to repeal child labor laws, lift the restrictions on puppy mills, do away with the voter-approved cost of living increases to the minimum wage and kill unions. Oh yeah, slap teachers around, too. … It is really just a matter of dividing the assets. We’ll take urban street crime. They can have the meth labs.
I asked McClellan last week if he stood by the proposal, and he did. “It would make a lot of sense,” he said, citing the gun law as one example. “People in rural Missouri drive around with rifles and shotguns in their pickups and don’t shoot each other up, but here in St. Louis, we have a lot of drive-by shootings. They even pronounce the name of the state differently—in rural Missouri, it’s Missouruh. Here, it’s Missouree.”
In 2008, then-state Sen. Jeff Smith, a Democrat representing St. Louis, tossed out the idea while filibustering against a constitutional amendment to make Missouri English-only. He was filibustering in French, just to irritate the bill’s sponsors, but eventually ran out of things to say and started conjecturing about secession. “I was trying to be ridiculous, and I brought up: ‘You know what? My district and the other two in the city, maybe we’ll think about becoming part of this Illinois place that isn’t hate-filled and xenophobic and doesn’t send messages that we don’t want you here.’ ” This riff provoked his colleagues so much that, in a rarely used Missouri equivalent of the “nuclear option,” they forced him to stop talking.
There would be complications to work out, such as where exactly to draw the new state line. Smith suggests that north and central St. Louis County, which is more Democratic and racially diverse (it includes Ferguson) could leave with the city, with the southern and western part of the county staying behind. (As it is, the city-county borders in St. Louis are so historically fraught that that they became the subject of the first novel by St. Louis County native Jonathan Franzen.)
Would Illinois even want St. Louis? I’d say a case could be made—cities, even ones with troubles like St. Louis, are economic engines, and Illinois’ sluggish economy could use a boost. And uniting St. Louis with its eastern suburbs (home of legendary alt-rock band Uncle Tupelo!) would give downstate Illinois more of a counterweight to Chicago.
Would the rest of Missouri let St. Louis go? It would be losing direct claim to the beloved Cardinals, the fabulous St. Louis Art Museum (home of the world’s largest collection of Max Beckmanns), and the state’s only abortion clinic (yes, really). Nonetheless, says George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, “a good portion of the state would be happy to be rid of them. Many people, true or not, thinks the state wastes too much money on St. Louis. There would be a wry smile in a lot of out-state Missouri if that proposal came forward.”
It won’t, of course. Which leaves the question: Why can’t St. Louis (and Kansas City) have their own gun laws, ones more suitable to their urban circumstances? Forget about it, says Connor. The cities are granted leeway on some issues, but not guns. Not because state legislators have any fondness for big-city gangbangers, but because they want visitors to St. Louis to be armed against them. “At the end of the day, any legislation restricting guns, period, is difficult to do in Missouri, because it’s: ‘I need to be able to carry a gun in St. Louis to defend myself,’ ” Connor explains. The right to carry a gun in one’s car sans permit “may have started out about shooting coyotes in your field, but it’s become about self-defense. Even in St. Louis, where [Missourians] might want police to confiscate guns, it’s: ‘I don’t want them to take my gun.’ ”
So the loaded guns stay in the cruising cars. On the night of Jan. 14 alone, there were six murders in five shootings overnight in St. Louis. At a press conference the next day, Mayor Francis Slay declared, “Crime is the absolute No. 1 priority in the city of St. Louis.” But not, apparently, in the state of Missouri.