Small, lightweight handgun at Eagle Pawn & Jewelry (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

The Springfield police chief’s call for lawmaking designed to reduce violent crime has members of the City Council turning to help from Jefferson City.

Once every couple of months, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams makes a report to the Springfield City Council about police efforts and crime data. His report in August featured heavy discussion of gun crime data.

“I have to continue to point to the one thing that continues to be our No. 1 problem: gun violence,” Williams said.

The chief sees crimes involving guns as the top priority for law enforcement agents in Springfield.

“If I had a magic wand to wave across the city, one thing that would make everybody safer is if we could decrease the amount of gun violence and encourage responsible gun ownership by those folks that need to have guns, want to have guns, desire to have a gun but don’t keep it secured and don’t use it properly,” Williams said during a presentation at Historic City Hall on Aug. 22. “That’s what’s driving this along with the increase in violent crime from criminals that we’re targeting.”

A LexisNexis heat map overlaid over a Google Map shows crimes involving guns and homicides in Springfield From Aug. 12-Oct. 12, 2022. The highest concentration of violent crimes occurred in west central Springfield between Chestnut Expressway and Division Street. (Graphic by Rance Burger)

More than a month later, the message still stuck with City Councilman Andrew Lear, who brought up the issue of gun crimes to the city’s state lobbyist. Will Marrs of the Governmental Services group is part of the lobbying firm that represents Mercy Health, Bass Pro Shops, the Greene County Commission, the city of Springfield, the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Boys and Girls Clubs Alliance. Marrs was on hand for a discussion of legislative priorities for 2023 the City Council held Oct. 11, and what he heard was Lear’s concern about guns used to commit crimes.

“Gun violence is our No. 1 problem here in terms of public safety,” Lear said. “Is there anything legislatively — you know, we have this one item — that has any hope of anybody trying to do anything about limiting guns in this state?”

Gun violence, gun control and gun owners’ rights are always hot topics of conversation in and around the Missouri General Assembly, Marrs said, but that doesn’t mean any significant legislation will pass in 2023.

“The conversation is constantly there, and it is a public safety argument, and it’s just whether or not we can actually get the popular support, especially in the House, to actually address it,” Marrs said.

Hands wringing in Jefferson City

Lear wondered if Missouri could revisit some of its regulations for carrying firearms, or maybe reinstall laws for firearms safety requirements before a person may carry a concealed weapon.

“I was hopeful that we could put something — there was some thought to going back to at least requiring gun safety classes or something, what we used to have,” Lear said. “To carry [a firearm], you had to go through a process that now doesn’t exist.”

Marrs notes the overall climate of state and national politics as the key reason he is not optimistic about any red flag laws or other gun control measures being passed into the Missouri Revised Statutes in 2023.

“I think politically we’re just not in a place where I really feel like we can adjust this,” Marrs said.

Republicans have controlled the Missouri House of Representatives since 2003, and held a 107-48 advantage over Democrats after the 2020 elections.

There were 24 Republicans to 10 Democrats in the Missouri Senate in 2022, though the Senate was more fractured by infighting among Republicans more than disputes between the two parties.

Regardless of party affiliation, Marrs said state lawmakers are taking up increasingly partisan positions to get themselves elected and to hold positions of authority in their caucuses.

“We’re seeing more and more extreme candidates on both sides,” Marrs said. “I just think that’s kind of where we’re at in a polarized climate.”

The climate leads to situations where lawmakers who might have been willing to reach across the aisle for compromises just don’t happen like they used to. State lawmakers, Marrs said, are more stringent and less likely to debate with people of differing viewpoints.

“We’re probably going to see less reasonable legislators coming in than we’ve seen in previous years, so that’s another issue that we’re going to face this year,” Marrs said.

Marrs said there may be some legislation on small red flag law that surfaces in the next session of the Missouri General Assembly, but its change is likely to be small rather than sweeping.

“There are creative ideas,” Marrs said. “I have heard some interesting ideas, such as tying a history of animal abuse, which has a pretty strong correlation to people who are problem offenders with gun violence, but that’s getting pretty far into the weeds and we’re not addressing the main issue, which is guns.”

Shots fired in Springfield

The Springfield Police Department uses the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to track and chart crimes. This pie chart shows the types of firearms used in crimes involving guns in Springfield, Missouri, in 2022. (Image from the Springfield Police Department)

The Springfield Police Department reports 215 calls for “shots fired” in 2022. These are incidents where a Springfield resident hears the sound of what they believe to be gunfire nearby, and they call the police to report it. However, the caller doesn’t always see another person shooting a weapon or know exactly where the sound came from. Police officers still attempt to investigate reports of gunshots fired when such calls occur.

“Just three years ago, 2019, we had 227 [shots fired calls] for the entire year,” Williams said. “This year so far, we’ve had 44 people injured by gunfire, three years ago, 55 for the entire year. Those are not good numbers, and that’s the one thing that continues to increase.”

Police officers are also working to take guns from convicted felons, who are banned by law from possessing weapons.

“Our efforts to take illegal guns off the street and find violent criminals continue to reap dividends,” Williams said. “Just the special investigations unit has seized 144 guns so far this year, almost matching all of the guns seized last year and right on track with where we were three years ago in the number of guns taken from violent criminals

“Crimes against persons,” which range from murder to simple assault, are “down across the board,” in 2022 compared to 2021, with three months remaining in the year.

“Every category — this is compared to last year, the same six-month timeframe — is down,” Williams said. “That’s good news, really good news. Overall, 2.8 percent, about a 3-percent reduction in the first six months of 2022 compared to 2021.”

Drug arrests across Springfield are also statistically down, but Chief Williams said those statistics are more reflective of a lack of enforcement ability than a decline in drug use and illegal drug dealing.

“That’s more indicative of the fact that our staffing continues to struggle as we ramp back up,” Williams said. “We don’t have as many narcotics investigators; I’m having to pull from there to fill the field, and so those arrests, that proactive enforcement is down.”

Williams said the police department is working major drug cases, and working with other agencies like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI to break up major drug distribution operations.

“There is a lot of street narcotics and street vice activities that are ramping back up,” Williams said.

Suggestions at city government level

City Councilman Craig Hosmer brings a unique perspective of having served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1990 to 2002. He was on the House Committee on Criminal Law, and is a practicing attorney in Springfield. Hosmer brought up that cities are handcuffed when it comes to making any ordinances that would restrict the ownership and possession of firearms.

“As a legislative body, we can’t do anything, so the only thing we can do is ask the [Missouri] legislature to look at it,” Hosmer said.

Lear, who felt the issue was important enough to start the conversation on Oct. 11, knows the City Council can’t do much legal work apart from nonbinding resolutions.

“I recognize that us putting something on this piece of paper isn’t probably going to change any hearts and minds in Jefferson City,” Lear said.

In his role as the mayor of Springfield, Ken McClure has taken part in meetings with the mayors of other major cities in Missouri, like St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City, to discuss violent crime statistics and any measures that might be taken at the statewide level to curb crimes involving guns.

“We recognize the realities of what the legislative prospects are, but on the other hand, gun violence is a major issue,” McClure said. “It’s an issue many, many places.”

City Manager Jason Gage said help with laws to tamper gun violence in Springfield might start with a very basic, foundational approach that first establishes that violent crimes involving guns are a problem in Missouri.

“I would imagine that there is strong consensus from just about everyone in the state that gun violence is bad and it should be reduced,” Gage said. “The issue is how you do it, and if it’s about limiting guns it’s going to be crossing over to some of the perspectives of why that’s a bad thing, and you get into a big debate.”

“Maybe there is a consideration of an acknowledgment that gun violence has been increasing,” Gage said, “and then just support any legislation that would reduce gun violence.”

More data on guns and crime

The Springfield Police Department uses the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), an online database used to track and store crime data based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) standards. NIBRS has become a valuable reference tool for Chief Williams when he makes reports to the Springfield City Council.

NIBRS data shows there have been 665 cases of crimes involving firearms in Springfield in 2022, and that the police department has a clearance rate of 26.92 percent when it comes to collecting evidence to determine what happened and to pass information to the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The fatality rate for crimes involving guns is trending steady, with 17 fatal firearms crimes in Springfield in 2020, 16 in 2021, and 10 in the first nine months of 2022.

NIBRS data shows there were 1,093 nonfatal crimes involving guns in Springfield in 2020, 1,049 in 2021 and 655 so far in 2022. Handguns have been the most common type of firearm used in Springfield crimes in 2022, at 64.3 percent. The data shows 50.2 percent of Springfield’s crimes with guns happen in houses and apartments, 28.7 percent happen on roads, streets, parking lots and camps, and 18.2 percent of the crimes happen on commercial property.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger