In 1917, the Missouri General Assembly passed two groundbreaking pieces of legislation.
Lawmakers approved a sweeping gun control measure.
And they abolished capital punishment.
Gov. Frederick Gardner vetoed the gun bill, even though it had been championed by Sam Allender, the highly regarded chief of detectives for the St. Louis Police Department.
Gardner cited the opposition of several prominent businessmen who said the bill discriminated against Missouri merchants.
But Gardner, a Democrat whose business interests included the St. Louis Coffin Co., signed the death penalty bill.*
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch applauded the end of capital punishment in an editorial (March 20, 1917): “Missouri is in good company in refusing longer to impose on its officials the repulsive duty of executing criminals.”
And then Missouri, a fickle state, reversed course — on both measures.
In 1919, in a special session, the Legislature reinstated capital punishment, compelled by the fear of extra-judicial killings.
Exhibit A was the lynching in Lamar of a man named Jay Lynch, who had been convicted in the death of the Barton County sheriff and the sheriff’s son.
The Post-Dispatch, in a roundup of the views of leading “churchmen, educators and lawyers” (June 8, 1919), suggested the Lamar mob acted because the state wouldn’t: “Under the present law, Lynch could not have suffered a severer penalty than life imprisonment for his cold-blooded crime.” (The lynching of Lynch, a white man, prompted the NAACP to launch a nationwide campaign for a congressional investigation.)
The first person sentenced to die under the newly restored death penalty was James Johnson of Poplar Bluff, a Black man accused of killing a farmer’s wife. (The trial on Feb. 23, 1920, took less than 3 hours from the presentation of evidence to the jury’s guilty verdict. On March 26, 1920, the day he was executed in the Butler County jail, Johnson reportedly said his real name was Adam Jackson and confessed. The rope broke on the first attempt; a “stouter rope” was used the second time.)
The gun control measure, meanwhile, was resurrected by the Legislature in 1921. This time, Missouri had a different governor: Arthur Hyde, a Republican.
Considered the most stringent firearms law in the nation, the measure championed by Allender provided that no one could acquire a weapon without a written permit from the local circuit clerk. The permit had to describe the weapon, its serial number, the maker’s name and other information. Permit-to-purchase remained the law in Missouri for more than 80 years.
Missouri’s once-stringent gun laws began to crumble 20 years ago, when the Republicans took control of the House. Although Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, vetoed their concealed-carry bill in 2003, 26 House Democrats joined the GOP majority to override the veto, a stunning rebuke. But that’s another story. — Roland Klose
* The sponsor, Rep. Oliver B. Whitaker, was a Republican and preacher from tiny Weaubleau in Hickory County. He’s credited with delivering the hourlong speech that got the bill across the finish line. (Originally published May 31, 2022)