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Justice Department sues Missouri over gun law riling local police

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A Missouri law barring police from enforcing federal gun laws is leading to a legal showdown with the U.S. Justice Department. Meanwhile, police in Missouri say the law is making day-to-day police work more difficult. From St. Louis, Kavahn Mansouri of the Midwest Newsroom reports.

KAVAHN MANSOURI, BYLINE: In Missouri, the so-called Second Amendment Preservation Act allows for citizens to sue local law enforcement departments for up to $50,000 if they believe their Second Amendment rights have been violated by police enforcing federal gun laws. The U.S. Justice Department yesterday filed suit to block enforcement of the statute, arguing it is unconstitutional and leads to a breakdown between local and federal police. It's the latest of three lawsuits currently challenging the law.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Missouri statute is impeding that state's law enforcement work by penalizing police officers and the departments for doing their jobs. Allison Anderman with the gun control advocacy group Giffords agrees. She says these laws are among some of the most extreme gun rights measures in the country.

ALLISON ANDERMAN: This is like nothing we've ever seen. I mean, this is a state going after its own law enforcement officers and subjecting them to criminal liability or a bankrupting sum of money for helping to enforce laws.

MANSOURI: In a statement Wednesday, Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmidt labeled the Justice Department's challenge a partisan lawsuit that attacks Missouri and Second Amendment rights. But Anderman says many police officers here disagree.

ANDERMAN: There have been reports of officers who are very pro-Second Amendment in rural counties in Missouri saying that these are dangerous laws that put their efforts to keep the public safe at risk.

MANSOURI: Since the law went into effect last year, more than a dozen law enforcement agencies here have ended partnerships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the state's highway patrol no longer aids the bureau in certain work.

BOB MUENZ: I don't want criminals to go free because we're having to reduce what we do or maybe we're not doing what we do for fear of being sued or violating the statute.

MANSOURI: That's Bob Muenz, president of Missouri's Police Chief Association. His group supports gun rights but says Missouri's law just goes too far.

MUENZ: It opens up the law enforcement agency in the municipality to potential lawsuit. No department, no police chief wants to be a test case for a lawsuit or a Supreme Court case or a challenge to a legislation.

MANSOURI: His group and the St. Louis Area Police Chief Association are supporting a lawsuit seeking to clarify language in the law with the goal of allowing collaboration with federal law enforcement. In a third suit, Missouri's two largest cities also argue the law is unconstitutional. The Missouri Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on an appeal.

But even as the law is widely challenged, a nearly identical version is winding through the Iowa legislature. Iowa Republican Senator Zach Nunn says his bill is a way for the state to avoid what he called federal overreaches, things like vaccine mandates or eviction moratoriums from Washington.

ZACH NUNN: But what we don't want to have is that a city, a county goes forward and either knowingly or directly requires law enforcement to work on a federal case that is in violation of either Iowa law or the - is in violation of the Second Amendment.

MANSOURI: There are currently 15 other states considering similar bills seeking to prevent local police from enforcing federal gun laws. Allison Anderman hopes the Justice Department's suit against Missouri will deter them from moving forward.

For NPR News, I'm Kavahn Mansouri in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kavahn Mansouri