WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued Missouri on Wednesday over the state’s far-reaching gun law, which discourages local officials from enforcing federal firearms measures.
The law, known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act, is among the most severe state gun-rights bills in recent years. At least eight other states, including West Virginia, have recently passed similar measures, but Missouri’s has by far the sharpest teeth: A provision allows citizens to sue any local police agency for $50,000 for every incident in which they can prove that their right to bear firearms was violated, provided they were not flouting state law.
The department argued that the Missouri law, rammed through the state’s Republican-led legislature last spring, violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which prohibits states from overriding federal statute.
“This act impedes criminal law enforcement operations in Missouri,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement after the suit was filed in Kansas City federal court. “The United States will work to ensure that our state and local law enforcement partners are not penalized for doing their jobs to keep our communities safe.”
Biden administration officials had threatened to file the lawsuit for months. They first outlined their stance in support of a state case brought last year by local officials in the St. Louis area who claimed that the law hindered them from addressing the recent spike in gun violence.
The Missouri law, Justice Department lawyers said in the complaint, has already “had a harmful impact on public safety efforts within the state” by prompting local and state officials to withdraw from state-federal task forces and sever their connections to vital crime and ballistics databases maintained by federal agencies.
The suit came two days after lawyers in the Missouri case began wrapping up their closing arguments before the state Supreme Court, and Republicans were quick to suggest the Justice Department’s suit was intended to pre-empt a possible loss in the state court.
“After their disastrous arguments in the Missouri Supreme Court last week, the Biden Department of Justice has now filed yet another partisan lawsuit that seeks to attack Missourians’ Second Amendment rights,” said Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri, a Republican who supported passage of the law.
“Make no mistake, the law is on our side in this case, and I intend to beat the Biden administration in court,” added Mr. Schmitt, who recently joined a crowded field of conservatives running for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by the longtime senator Roy Blunt.
But the measure has drawn sharp criticism from many law enforcement officials of all political stripes — including Second Amendment purists, who say it endangers public safety.
“It’s just a terribly written law,” Sheriff Brad Cole, a Republican from Christian County in the rural Ozarks region of the state, said last year, echoing the sentiments of other local officials.
In an affidavit filed in the state case in August, the special agent in charge of the Kansas City field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, reported that nearly a quarter of state and local enforcement officials who worked directly with the agency — 12 of 53 officers — had withdrawn from joint collaborations.
In addition, state and local agencies have begun to restrict federal access to investigative resources they have historically shared, including the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state crime database, and the Kansas City Police Department’s records system, he said.
The bill’s supporters have argued that the new law is constitutional and does not prohibit federal agents from operating in Missouri. They have argued it only blocks state and local law enforcement officials from working on such cases without explicit proof that their actions will not contribute to the confiscation of guns from law-abiding citizens.
Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff, has suggested that the legislature should revisit the law to address the objections of law enforcement officials.
The Justice Department said it had filed the suit to assert a larger constitutional principle.
“A state cannot simply declare federal laws invalid,” said Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.