Guns seem to be ubiquitous in Missouri. In cities like St. Louis, street corners are marked by shrines to the slain and teddy bears are tied to trees to commemorate young gun homicide victims. In rural Missouri, guns are sold inside candy stores and pawn shops—rifles casually displayed near salt-water taffy or traded to cover rent. Mundane places—libraries, grocery stores, children’s arcades—post “NO FIREARMS” signs on the doors, because the assumption is that everyone in Missouri is packing.
On Sept. 15, the Missouri legislature passed a conceal and carry law that ensures that guns will be even further entrenched in the state’s everyday life. It’s now legal for state residents to carry concealed weapons, in public, without a permit, criminal background check or firearms training. In overriding governor Jay Nixon’s veto of the law, Missouri now joins Idaho, West Virginia and Mississippi as one of four states to adopt “permitless carry” in 2016, bringing the total number of US states to 12. Missouri Democrats strongly opposed the law, calling it a “perfect storm” that would cause fatal shootings—already a more common cause of death in Missouri than car accidents—to rise, and embolden aspiring George Zimmermans to “stand their ground” against innocent black citizens.
Guns have been a flashpoint in Missouri throughout the 2016 election season. Two prominent politicians, Democratic senatorial candidate Jason Kander and Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens, have made guns a focus of their campaigns. In an ad released earlier in September, Kander, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, assembled an AR-15 rifle blindfolded while making his case for responsible gun use and background checks. “Senator [Roy] Blunt has been attacking me on guns,” Kander explains. “In the Army, I learned how to use and respect my rifle.”
Greitens took a different approach. Proclaiming himself “a conservative outsider…taking dead aim at politics as usual,” Greitens, a former Navy Seal, filmed multiple campaign ads in which he fires high-weapons. (Greitens’ ad inspired a very funny viral parody by St. Louis comedian Eric Christensen.) The law could embolden aspiring George Zimmermans to “stand their ground” against innocent black citizens. In reality, Greitens is hardly an outsider to establishment politics; he is a Duke graduate and Rhodes Scholar who served as a White House fellow.
Gun culture, in Missouri, is indeed ubiquitous: that Kander, running as a Democrat advocating gun control, assembled a rifle on TV to show his bona fides speaks to its dominance. But while gun culture may shape state discourse, and gun regulation is the subject of heated debate both in Missouri’s media and legislature, the issue of gun ownership itself remains more of a mystery. Who are Missouri’s gun owners? How does ownership vary by region, gender, and race? Where are the guns coming from? What are they being used for?
The answer is that no one really knows. That’s because in 1996, the National Rifle Association goaded Congress into forbidding the US Centers for Disease Control from spending funds “to advocate or promote gun control,” stripping the center of $2.6 million in funding to research gun violence. Despite an executive order by president Barack Obama prompted by the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, the CDC continues to refuse research funding, in part because of fear that they will be hassled by the NRA. The result, a Los Angeles Times study concluded, is that “we’re flying blind on gun violence.”
It may be that gun ownership in Missouri—and in the US in general—is not as pervasive as it seems. This week, the Guardian gained access to a rare piece of quantitative research: an in-depth study from Harvard and Northeastern Universities showing that half of all guns are owned by only 3% of American adults. While Americans own an estimated 265 million guns—more than one gun for every adult—133 million of these guns are owned by the 3%. The authors of the study note that gun ownership in the US has actually fallen from 25% to 22% since 1994, but the number of guns available has risen dramatically.
The primary reason for increased gun ownership? Fear. “The desire to own a gun for protection—there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country. It isn’t a response to actuarial reality,” Matthew Miller, one of the authors of the study, told the Guardian, noting that the gun ownership surge occurred as violent crime decreased nationwide.
In Missouri, that fear is palpable, and it’s also self-perpetuating. While crime has plummeted since the 1990s, Missouri gun deaths are increasing, as is paranoia. Missouri is the birthplace of the debunked “Ferguson effect:”the false belief that homicide rates increase as a result of protests against police brutality. (St. Louis’s rate began climbing in April 2014, four months before the protests began.)
While gun homicides do not rise as a result of protests, gun sales do. During and after the Ferguson events, gun sales spiked throughout the region. In St. Louis County, concealed weapon permit applications more than doubled in the final six months of 2014 compared to 2013. In Missouri, paranoia over gun violence prompts people to buy guns, which in turn leads to actual gun violence. Gun suicides, intentional homicides, and accidental homicides all remain on the rise, to the point that Missouri now leads the nation in shootings by toddlers.
However, the rise in gun-related deaths seems more correlated to the availability of guns and lack of regulation than it does to social unrest. Prior to 2007, Missouri had far stricter gun laws, including a requirement that all handgun buyers obtain a gun permit by undergoing a background check in person at a sheriff’s office. After those regulations were repealed, Missouri’s gun homicide rate began to soar. Between 2008 and 2014, while the national rate declined by 11%, Missouri’s rose 18%, according to Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The rise in gun-related deaths seems more correlated to the availability of guns and lack of regulation than social unrest.
All of which brings us back to the state’s new permitless carry legislation. Given that stricter gun control seems to save lives, why is Missouri passing a law that practically guarantees reckless gun use? The answer lies in the cultural divide between “Missouri” (more urban, northern, and liberal) and “Missourah” (more rural, southern, and conservative). While there are numerous subcultures within each region, the divide between Missouri and Missourah is real, and straddling that divide is a struggle for politicians in state-wide elections. Greitens’ gun-toting campaign is a seminal example of a “Missouri” politician pandering to the assumed desires of an armed “Missourah” base.
Most members of the state legislature hail from gerrymandered districts in rural “Missourah” where they are frequently courted by the NRA. Democrats who favor gun control tend to come from urban areas like Kansas City and St. Louis. When the legislature panders to its white, rural gun-owners, it is these black urban populations that tend to bear the brunt of the repercussions. This is why in St. Louis, lawmakers and law enforcement officials have vehemently opposed the new conceal and carry law, saying it will increase homicides and make it harder for police to do their jobs. Black St. Louisans have remarked on social media that it feels like “open season” on their community.
Many black Missourians have expressed concern over the law, knowing that white racists—already armed and paranoid in the aftermath of Ferguson—now have more legal recourse than ever to murder black citizens whom they perceive as a threat. Black St. Louisans have remarked on social media that it feels like “open season” on their community, while others have wryly suggested that an all-black conceal and carry rally would prompt white lawmakers to repeal the law.
It is notable that on the same day the state legislature passed the gun law, it passed another law making it more difficult for Missourians to vote. This new ID requirement will disproportionately affect the black population. The racial animus of the Missouri state legislature has never been more clear.
It is also fairly clear what will be the result of the new gun law: more deaths. These deaths will be mourned but not analyzed, for guns are now easier to obtain than data. The lack of information on gun ownership, combined with fear stoked both by the homicide rate and by racial biases, will further the cycle of vigilance and viciousness in Missouri. Missourians may be divided about gun laws, but when it comes to gun culture, we are all held hostage.