JEFFERSON CITY _ The Senate washed its hands Tuesday of a long and arduous concealed weapons debate, voting to let the people of the state decide the matter instead.
After debating the matter off and on during a three week period, opponents basically gave the bill's supporters an ultimatum: Let the people decide, or forget about concealed weapons.
Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis city, who as majority floor leader controls the Senate's calendar and is a leading opponent of the measure, told the chamber that if the bill were not passed Tuesday, it might be buried for the rest of the session.
And without the statewide-vote amendment, opponents gave no indication they were willing to stop talking and offering amendments.
Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, summed up the political situation Senators faced. "If this amendment fails, it's going on the informal calendar and it ain't coming off," Staples said.
The amendment for a statewide vote in April 1996 passed the Senate 20 to 14.
The bill still faces a couple of key tests in the Senate. First, it must be cleared by the Senate Budget Control Committee which reviews legislation that would have a financial impact on the state.
Then, if the bill clears that committee, it needs a final vote in the Senate to get to the House.
By passing the decision off to the state's voters, the Senate let itself - and Gov. Mel Carnahan - off the hook. A governor does not act on _ veto or approve _ legislation submitted to a public vote.
While Staples freely acknowledged the political reality of approving the amendment, other senators spoke eloquently of the democratic nature of a referendum.
"Free and fair discussion is nothing to be afraid of," said Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City. "I'm afraid of guns and concealed weapons, but I'm not afraid of taking this to a vote of the people."
Wiggins may not have to be afraid. Opponents of the measure are claiming a victory with the passage of the referendum amendment.
Tim Jackson, the Executive Director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, which opposes the bill, said the decision to put the question to a statewide vote is "a big victory" for those who oppose the measure.
"We couldn't be happier," Jackson said. "We trust the public."
The police chief's association contracted the University of Missouri-St. Louis Public Policy Research Center to poll 500 licensed drivers around the state of Missouri and found that respondents opposed by two to one allowing concealed weapons.
But Senators disagreed on whether the move was a defeat or a victory for the measure.
The April election, traditionally, has a low turnout _ making issues on that ballot more susceptible to well-financed campaigns.
"We all know that probably 20 percent of voters will vote in the April election," complained the bill's sponsor, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler. "Is that a true reading of the population? No."
Caskey told the Senate that the "common folk" who support the measure would not be able to raise the $2 million they would need to pass the measure in an election over the objection of organizations like the police chiefs' association.
But Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia, argued that the National Rifle Association, which is in favor of the measure, has said it could raise $4 million to push the measure.
Moseley said Missouri voters do not support the idea of citizens being able to carry concealed weapons. "All of the data show a substantial majority of people in the state are against the bill," Moseley said.
But Staples said he thinks the measure will carry in a statewide election. Still, Staples said, he hopes the House strips the referendum provision from the bill, which would mean the two chambers would have to resolve the issue in a conference committee.
Moseley, however, said the Senate has spoken on the measure. "If the bill comes back to us without that on it, I'd be very surprised if the Senate passed it," Moseley said.