COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri senators on Tuesday debated a “stand your ground” bill that backers say will strengthen the state's self-defense laws but that a prosecutor has dubbed the “Make Murder Legal Act.”
Republican Sen. Eric Burlison's bill seeks to give shooters and other assailants the benefit of the doubt that they were acting in self-defense.
If passed, it would mean that prosecutors could not bring charges against people who reasonably believed they were acting in self-defense. Police would need to find probable cause that shooters or other assailants acted unlawfully before arresting them.
Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver, who spoke on behalf of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, called the measure the “Make Murder Legal Act.” He said the changes would “make it impossible to convict a great number of people of assault.”
“An exponential number of violent criminals who should be in prison, they’re going to walk free because of the procedural postures that this bill would put cases in,” Oliver told a Missouri Senate committee Tuesday.
A number of other Missouri law enforcement groups also spoke against the bill.
Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee have laws similar to the Missouri proposal that limit police from making arrests if defendants claim self-defense, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Kansas’ “stand your ground law” has come under criticism in recent weeks after a prosecutor said it prevented him from criminally charging employees of a juvenile intake center in Wichita in the death of a Black teenager who had been restrained on the ground on his stomach, shackled and handcuffed for more than 30 minutes.
St. Louis-area Democratic Sen. Brian Williams, the only Black member of the Senate public safety committee, called the Missouri proposal racist, offensive and “a personal attack on people who look like me.” He said it would have legally sanctioned the 2020 fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
A jury in November convicted three white men — father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — of murder in the 25-year-old Black man's death.
“They murdered him,” Williams said. “This bill, if this had been in law in the state of Georgia, they would have walked.”
The McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick. Bryan joined the chase in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery.
Among those who support the measure is Mark McCloskey — a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who, along with his wife, made headlines in 2020 by waving guns at racial injustice protesters.
The McCloskeys, both lawyers in their 60s, eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and Republican Gov. Mike Parson pardoned them weeks later. The McCloskeys said they felt threatened by the protesters who walked onto their private street during protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
McCloskey told Williams: “If this bill is a threat to you, it can only be because you’re intending to pose a threat to our citizens.”
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis activist who led the protest that went by the McCloskeys' house, said demonstrators could have been shot.
“If I had been killed that day, you're telling me that there shouldn't exist a process with a person that committed the murder, who took a sacred life, should not be questioned?” he asked the Senate committee.