Following some of the most significant protests in recent American history, you'd think Missouri's priorities would be rebuilding frayed ties within its communities and addressing its policing problem.
Instead, the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature thinks that, SWAT teams aside, there aren't enough guns out there.
On Thursday, Missouri lawmakers addressed this concern by overriding an earlier veto from Governor Jay Nixon and voting into place a law that massively expands gun rights in the state: it lowers the legal age to obtain a concealed weapons permit from 21 to 19, allows residents with such a permit to openly carry guns, and teachers to bring them to school. The new open carry policy will apply even in cities and towns that have laws against it.
Technically, that means that when the new gun regulations take effect next month, anyone with a concealed weapons permit could legally show up at the next Missouri protest with a gun displayed on their hip.
"The last thing we need is more guns, especially for those of us out there who struggle every day to make our community safe in neighborhoods where there's so much gun violence," Antonio French, a city alderman and community leader who has been a regular presence at the Ferguson protests, told VICE News. "It really seems like the state legislature is working against us, not with us."
While Missouri is hardly alone in its fascination with firearms, the state has recently been at the heart of a national controversy over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown — who was not armed — by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The protests that followed Brown's death brought plenty of guns into the streets of the St. Louis suburb — nearly all of them openly displayed by hundreds of police officers in riot gear.
In that context, the new open carry permits seem more than a little disturbing. The legislature, critics said, had just made Missouri less safe.
"I think it's dangerous," French said. "The folks in Jefferson City and the state capitol, they're really tone-deaf when it comes to the situation in our urban communities in the state. We have had this problem for quite a while: so many of the legislators are from the more rural and suburban parts of the state and the urban parts are really outnumbered."
More guns in the hands of younger people will not only mean more gun violence, he added. It will also mean police pulling people over being even more on edge, leading to tragedies all too familiar in Saint Louis.
"Police have already been very frustrated," he said. "Under current Missouri law, you can drive around with guns. So they pull over cars with young people, and frequently they do have guns, which is completely legal under Missouri law, which makes these encounters even more tense and potentially dangerous for both parties. It works to make the relationship between police and the community even more volatile."
As part of the new legislation, teachers and school staff can be designated "school protection officers" and trained by the Department of Public Safety to carry guns into schools, making Missouri the tenth state in the country to allow this practice since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed 20 children and six adults.
While states like New York, California, and Connecticut responded by toughening up their gun restrictions, far more states have chosen to do the opposite.
"I'm not surprised that any type of pro-gun legislation is moving in Missouri," Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a DC-based gun control advocacy group, told VICE News. "They have a legislature right now that's bending over backwards to see what they can do for the NRA."
"As with most of the things that the gun lobby does, I'm sure there's no legislative finding associated with it or any actual data or evidence that would indicate that such a policy is necessary," he added. "But I don't know if that has ever been the point."
The vote on the legislation had been on the table for a couple of years already, but its timing coincided with a recent reprieve in protests over the police killing of Brown, and as residents await a grand jury's decision on whether the officer who killed him will be charged.
On Wednesday, at least 35 protesters were arrested as they attempted to shut down a highway in Ferguson calling for Wilson's arrest and justice for Brown.
If that indictment doesn't come, many fear that Ferguson will once again erupt in open conflict between angry protesters and heavily armed police.
"It is being planned for. I don't know where it will explode. There will be civil unrest far beyond Ferguson," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles toldReuters. "The St. Louis region is preparing for that."
To those favoring more gun control rather than more access to guns, the combination of looser policies and heightened tensions seems an obvious recipe for disaster.
"Think about that. If they get a CCW permit, 19-year-olds - whose brains, science tells us, are not yet fully developed - can now legally go to a protest in Ferguson carrying a concealed weapon," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote in an op-ed on Thursday. "Ferguson can't ban the practice. School districts can designate certain teachers to come to school armed. What could possibly go wrong?"
"Passing legislation to bring more guns into schools, into retail establishments, into the streets, into the hands of babes is horrendous public policy," the board concluded. "To do so in the wake of Newtown and Ferguson is tone-deaf. It's shameful. It's dangerous."
Here's the thing with guns though: if you have a gun, you're more likely to use it - and if you're scared and have a gun, you're that much more likely to use it.
Just days after Brown's death, as protests grew angrier and police response harsher, several gun stores in St. Louis reported soaring sales of both weapons and ammo.
"People are coming in with fear in their eyes and they're saying they need something to protect their house," Steven King, the owner of a gun store in a city suburb told local reporters. "They're scared to death."
Another store owner said his gun sales had jumped 50 percent following reports of looting in the early days of the protests. A lot of the people rushing to buy guns, he said, were first-time buyers.
Local business owners - including one interviewed by VICE News - said that they had armed themselves to protect their stores.
Mohammed, who owns a deli in the North Side of Saint Louis, where police shot and killed another man just days after Brown's death, said he had a "bunch" of guns, including an M-16 on display in the store. We asked if he planned to use it.
"If I have to," he replied.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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