A former Democrat state lawmaker turned circuit court judge has upheld the University of Missouri’s ban on firearms in a case brought by a university professor who sought the ability to leave a firearm locked in the trunk of his car while at work.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reports Judge Jeff Harris, who spent several years as a Democrat state representative before he was appointed to the bench by then-governor Jay Nixon in 2016, ruled this week that the university’s policy on banning firearms can stand even under “strict scrutiny”, or the highest level of judicial review. Missouri voters amended the state’s constitution back in 2014 to require that all gun laws in the state must meet that standard in order to be upheld.
Harris wrote that the rule does not violate the state constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms and supports the university’s compelling interests of promoting safety on its campuses.
“To reach a result based on something other than the evidence adduced at trial would be engaging in judicial activism, which the court will not do,” Harris wrote. “The court must reach a judgment based on the evidence adduced at trial, and the evidence adduced at trial supports a finding that the rule is constitutional.”
In his ruling, Harris hinted that his decision on the law may be different from his personal views.
“The question before the court is not whether the court would vote for or against the rule if the court were a member of the university’s Board of Curators,” Harris wrote.
Justice is supposed to be blind, but I can’t help feeling like Judge Harris was lifting his blindfold and peeking while considering this case. I don’t think the “hint” the reporter sees was anything more than an attempt to point out his supposed even-handed judicial reasoning.
Harris talks about “evidence”, but his job wasn’t to play detective. It was to determine whether the university’s ban on firearms, even in locked cars, is constitutional under strict scrutiny.
The judge talked about the university’s “compelling interest” in promoting safety, which is absolutely true. But a compelling interest alone isn’t enough to uphold the law. Under strict scrutiny the university had to show as well that their ban on firearms is “narrowly tailored” to achieve the compelling interest of public safety, and that the law uses the “least restrictive means” in order to achieve its compelling interest.
I can’t find Judge Harris’s opinion online, and unfortunately the Columbia paper’s reporting neglects to mention how Judge Harris concluded that a blanket ban on firearms is narrowly tailored, or the least restrictive way of going about ensuring the public safety, particularly when we’re talking about prohibiting a constitutionally protected right. I imagine there were some legal contortions taking place in order to make the argument that the narrowest and least restrictive way to protect the public safety is to declare an entire university campus to be a gun-free zone. Again, this case wasn’t even challenging the ban on carrying firearms, just the portion of the law that prohibits legal gun owners from storing their firearms in their vehicles.
Not only does that policy do nothing to improve public safety, it places the legal gun owner at risk while they’re off-campus, because it effectively disarms them on their way to and from campus as well.
It’s a disappointing ruling, and I hope that Missouri’s Attorney General or the professor who originally brought the case will appeal the judge’s decision and keep the case alive, though the prospect of that happening is unclear at the moment.