Court considers ban on intoxicated gun possession -

Court considers ban on intoxicated gun possession

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri attorney general's office urged the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to allow enforcement of a state law banning gun possession by intoxicated people.

A Mississippi County judge ruled in 2008 that it was unconstitutional to bar intoxicated people from possessing a gun in their own homes. That ruling tossed out a 2006 case against a southeast Missouri man found unconscious in a chair with a loaded gun after he had threatened to shoot himself -- or make the police do it -- when his wife said she was leaving.

According to court records, John L. Richard, of Benton, threatened to kill himself and then took an unknown amount of morphine and an antidepressant. Richard was charged with a felony for possessing a loaded gun while intoxicated.

Assistant Attorney General Karen Kramer argued Wednesday that the state Supreme Court should allow the case to be prosecuted because the state has a legitimate interest in restricting guns from intoxicated people to protect public safety.

Craig Johnston, a public defender who represented Richard before the Supreme Court, said the intoxication ban is too broad and threatens to criminalize legal behavior. He said the law also creates questions about whether intoxicated people could be prosecuted for picking up a gun when they mistakenly believed they needed to defend themselves, such as after hearing a noise in their house.

"A gun owner has a right to take prescribed medications in their house with the gun readily accessible," Johnston said. "It does no good to defend yourself if the gun is not readily accessible."

The state law at issue makes it illegal to possess or discharge a gun while intoxicated. There are exceptions for transporting unloaded guns or when the firearm is needed for self defense. Violations are a misdemeanor, but because Richard's gun was loaded, the charge was elevated to a felony carrying a sentence of up to four years in prison. The charge was dismissed before trial.

Johnston argued that the law could threaten the ability of gun owners to simply drink alcohol or take prescription medications.

Missouri generally only allows arguments about hypothetical situations in cases focusing on First Amendment protections. But Johnston said gun rights are fundamental, too.

Kramer said gun rights should not be prioritized as highly as First Amendment protections.

"The right to speak, the right to have thoughts and express opinions, the right to associate with other human beings, the right to practice a religion or not practice a religion as the case may be -- there are inherent to being human," he said. "The possession of firearms, while it's an important right and a constitutional one, it is not inherent to actual human behavior."

Judges Mary Russell and Laura Denvir Stith each pointed to examples where there seemed to be legitimate reason for a law banning intoxicated people from carrying guns. Russell used the example of an impaired person coming into the courtroom with a gun, and Stith offered a house party.

"Probably holding a gun intoxicated in the middle of a party is somewhat dangerous," Stith said.

The Supreme Court generally takes weeks or months to rule on cases it hears.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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