What the House-passed gun bill would do in Iowa |…

Gun Rights

A sign prohibiting weapons, smoking and violent behavior hangs at the main entrance to  University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City on Friday. A bill passed by Iowa House lawmakers would allow guns in school and college parking lots. The bill, among other provisions, allows anyone who can legally carry a firearm to keep it in their locked vehicle in the parking lots of schools, city and county buildings, state universities and prisons. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
A sign prohibiting weapons, smoking and violent behavior hangs at the main entrance to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City on Friday. A bill passed by Iowa House lawmakers would allow, among other provisions, anyone who can legally carry a firearm to keep it in their locked vehicle in the parking lots of schools, city and county buildings, state universities and prisons. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Iowans previously ineligible to carry firearms would be allowed to possess or acquire them — and carry unloaded weapons in vehicles — under a measure advanced by Republican lawmakers.

The little-noticed change to Iowa law included in House File 654 would repeal sections of Iowa Code that make it a crime for certain ineligible people to carry dangerous weapons, including those addicted to alcohol and those where there is probable cause to believe they’re a danger to themselves or others.

Iowa Republicans in 2021 passed a law eliminating the requirement for Iowans to obtain a permit to carry or possess handguns from their county sheriff.

When gun permits were required, a person addicted to alcohol could not qualify for a permit. There was no standard for what addicted to alcohol meant. But people a sheriff believed were a danger to themselves or others were prohibited from obtaining a gun permit.

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Now that gun permits are no longer required, House Republicans say neither of those sections are needed in the Iowa Code and should be removed. However, if a person is adjudicated as being addicted to alcohol, or being a danger to themselves or others, they still will not be allowed to possess a firearm, according to an analysis by House Republican staffers.

Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison and the bill’s floor manager in the House, said the new bill makes it clear a person can have a weapon on their own property — even if they do not qualify for a permit to carry one in public — so long as they are not prohibited from possessing firearms.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison
Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison

While Iowans are no longer required to obtain a permit to buy or carry a handgun, many still do to expedite gun purchases and to carry handguns legally in other states, as well as to clarify questions regarding their eligibility to carry or possess firearms.

The bill is now in the hands of the Iowa Senate, where a similar measure has been introduced.

Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks, a Democrat, contends allowing someone to acquire guns when they are ineligible to carry them, or allowing people to transfer guns to those ineligible to carry dangerous weapons, only means more guns in the hands of potentially dangerous individuals.

Nick Maybanks, Linn County attorney
Nick Maybanks, Linn County attorney

“This expansion only puts more people at risk for gun violence while serving very little constructive purpose,” Maybanks told The Gazette.

“The removal of the enforcement provision making dangerous people ineligible for a carry permit takes away any remaining discretion law enforcement may have to truly prevent people they know are a danger to themselves from obtaining firearms,” Maybanks said.

“Regardless, any reasonable enforcement mechanism for law enforcement to prevent people ineligible for a permit to carry from actually obtaining and using firearms in a dangerous manner is being handcuffed.”

Holt disagrees and said the language in the bill was reviewed and requested by the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which said the enforcement provisions were ambiguous and unenforceable.

“And would deny people due process,“ Holt said, giving the example of denying a gun permit to an individual charged with driving while intoxicated.

“Just because they got a DUI, it may be hard to argue they are addicted to alcohol,” he said. “It was unworkable in code, and we’re simply returning to where we were” before passing the 2021 law.

Bill restricts court access to national firearm database

The bill, which passed the House last week, 62-37, also strips Iowa courts of the authority to add people prohibited from possessing firearms to the National Criminal Background Check System run by the FBI.

House Republicans argued if the courts added a person to that database, then courts are the only ones that can remove a person from the system, which creates a conflict between the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the courts.

The bill would strike the courts’ authority to add prohibited people to the national database and instead direct the person’s name to the Department of Public Safety.

Maybanks claims supporters of the bill appear intent to make it “difficult as possible to enforce what firearm regulations we still actually have.”

It’s the latest expansion of gun rights by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature, which has passed several laws loosening or repealing gun regulations in recent years.

Last fall, Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure adding language to the Iowa Constitution that states it is a “fundamental individual right” to keep and bear arms, and that any restraint on that right is invalid unless it meets the stringent demands of “strict scrutiny” in court.

The language sets a high legal bar and goes beyond protections contained in the Second Amendment by dictating the level of judicial review Iowa courts must apply when considering whether gun restrictions in the state are permissible.

Guns in parking lots of schools, public buildings

A sign prohibiting weapons and other items at the main entrance to The University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City on Friday, April 14, 2023. A bill passed by Iowa House lawmakers would allow guns in school and college parking lots. The bill, among other provisions, allows anyone who can legally carry a firearm to keep it in their locked vehicle in the parking lots of schools, city and county buildings, state universities and prisons. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
A sign prohibiting weapons and other items hangs at the main entrances to University of Iowa Hospitals on Friday in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Much of the attention over the bill has focused on allowing gun owners to have a firearm in their car on school and college grounds in limited situations.

Anyone legally allowed to carry a firearm would be allowed to keep their weapon in their locked vehicle in the parking lots of schools, public universities, jails, prisons, courthouses and other lots operated by the state, counties or cities.

Other examples of public parking areas affected by the bill include state-owned hospitals, the state Supreme Court building, some Little League parks, the governor’s mansion at Terrace Hill, libraries, county fairgrounds and city pools, according to an analysis by House Republican staffers.

The bill also would allow a person to carry a handgun in a car if they are dropping off or picking up a student, staff member or other person at a public or non-public school. It also applies to people who are making deliveries to the school.

It prohibits Iowa’s community colleges and regent universities from enforcing policies that bar concealed dangerous weapons on campus grounds when weapons are locked in a personal vehicle, and states anyone doing so would be immune from damages.

The original bill would have allowed employees to keep guns in their cars in the parking lots of private employers, but the provision was removed at the urging of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a political contributor to Republican lawmakers.

NRA: More freedom for responsible gun owners

Democrats said the bill would make schools less safe and result in more guns around children.

They also said lawmakers were missing an opportunity to pass gun control measures in the wake of recent mass shootings across the country, like requiring background checks for private sales and authorizing courts to issue extreme-risk protection orders.

Both measures are being pushed by Tennessee’s Republican governor after a March 27 shooting at a private school in Nashville, Tenn., that took the lives of three 9-year-old students and three staff members.

A young girl places an item at a growing memorial,Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Nashville, at an entry to Covenant School for the victims of Monday' shooting. (AP Photo/John Amis)
A young girl places an item at a memorial at a Nashville, Tenn., private school on March 28, a day after a gunman killed three students and three staff members. (Associated Press)

Commonly known as “red-flag laws,” the laws allow law enforcement and concerned family members to seek a court order to temporarily prohibit possession and purchase of firearms and ammunition by individuals who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others, but who do not meet existing prohibiting criteria.

Proponents said the Iowa House-passed bill would protect Second Amendment rights and allow more freedom for responsible gun owners.

Holt, as well as a representative for the Iowa Firearms Coalition, a gun-rights advocacy group, said the bill will protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners while maintaining strict restrictions around the weapons in or near schools.

Richard Rogers, a volunteer lobbyist and board member of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said individuals now are forced to leave a “defensive” firearm at home because they’re not allowed to have them where they leave their house.

“It enhances the ability of Iowans to make what I believe is the lawful and moral and responsible choice to have an effective tool of defense to defend themselves and their family,” Rogers said.

Scott Jones, Iowa state director and lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, echoed Rogers.

“We believe their ability to protect and defend themselves and their families should not be prohibited for the entirety of their day just because they have to drop off or pick up a student at a public school,” Jones said.

Gun crimes spike; more guns stolen from vehicles

A Taran tactical combat master hand gun is displayed for sale on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Hempstead, New York. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman)
A Taran tactical combat master handgun is displayed for sale in June in Hempstead, N.Y. (Associated Press)

Maybanks, the Linn County attorney, said the county has seen a 300 percent increase in gun-related crimes since 2019, and that his office is prosecuting more gun-death cases than ever before.

“With the proliferation of guns being introduced into our communities and the expansion of laws allowing access and open-carrying in vehicles and on people, gun violence has soared locally and nationwide,” he said. “It’s a correlation we shouldn’t ignore.”

He noted local law enforcement has seen a uptick in guns being stolen from vehicles and ending up in the hands of criminals.

Cedar Rapids police said 23 firearms were stolen from vehicles in 2017 compared to 58 in 2022. The totals for the intervening years were 34 in 2018; 31 in 2019; 41 in 2020; and 56 in 2021.

The numbers do not indicate whether the vehicle was locked or unlocked or the locations where the vehicles were parked.

Both the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City police departments declined to comment on the pending legislation.

“This will just lead to more opportunities for guns to be stolen from cars with no objective benefit gained,” Maybanks said.

“In light of the tragic school shootings all over our news and with no objective evidence that allowing firearms in vehicles would prevent school shootings, this expansion to allow guns on school grounds not only makes zero sense, it’s an affront to grieving families and to parents who live in fear that their kids will be the next victims.”

Holt rebuffed those claims.

He said the people who would be allowed to have guns in their cars on school grounds would only be those with a valid permit to carry handguns — meaning they’ve passed a background check and undergone training.

“I do feel more comfortable when law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry a firearm,” Holt said during floor debate. “I feel very, very vulnerable in a gun-free zone because I know that mentally ill individuals who have decided to commit violence against other human beings don’t care what the law is.”

Guns on school grounds

In the House bill, guns and other weapons would not be allowed in school vehicles that carry students, except in cases when the school district has a policy allowing staff members to carry guns on school grounds. At least two school districts in Iowa, Spirit Lake and Cherokee, have approved such policies.

And Des Moines Area Community College has added armed guards on most of its campuses after several bullets pierced the garage door of an auto collision class at the college’s Southridge Center on the south side of Des Moines last fall.

About 20 rounds were fired at a man in the parking lot. No student or faculty member was hurt.

“There is not an education institution in the county not concerned about mass shootings because it’s happening everywhere,” DMACC President Rob Denson told The Gazette.

Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College
Rob Denson, Des Moines Area Community College

Denson said DMACC has not taken an official position on the legislation but would prefer public schools, colleges and universities be allowed to decide what’s best for campus safety when it comes to firearms on school grounds.

That said, Denson acknowledged it was “very likely there are periodic guns on campus we’re not aware of at the current time.”

“It will result in more guns (on campus), but in the end, if people follow the law as drafted, it should be a non-issue,” he said.

The Department of Public Safety at the University of Iowa declined to comment and referred questions to the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs Iowan’s public universities and is registered as opposed to the bill.

A spokesperson for the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics also declined to comment.

“Campus safety and security is one of the top priorities for the board and its institutions,” Board of Regents spokesperson Josh Lehman said. “Each campus has developed and implemented comprehensive policies on safety and security, and we believe that is where those decisions should remain.”

The Cedar Rapids Community School District did not respond to messages last week seeking comment. The Linn-Mar Community School District declined to comment on the pending legislation.

A spokesperson for Iowa City schools said the district is keeping a close eye on the bill.

“If the legislation in question is approved, we will assess the regulations to ensure that we comply with the law while prioritizing the safety and well-being of our school community,” the district said in a statement.

Courthouses, county offices

Mike Steines, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors, said he had not read the bill, but does not condone allowing firearms near courthouses and county offices, “where people can become irate.”

In 2014, a former Maquoketa city manager shot at a county employee during a Jackson County supervisors meeting before being tackled by a county supervisor and suffering a fatal gunshot wound during the ensuing struggle. Authorities said the gunman was upset with the assessment of his property and shot at the then-county assessor over the long-running dispute.

“I certainly support the Second Amendment, but I don’t support causing conflict by walking into a public place like that with a firearm,” said Steines, who said he intends to speak with the county sheriff about the bill.

Gun safety training in schools

The House bill also adds a requirement for schools to offer gun safety classes.

Schools would be encouraged to adopt the National Rifle Association’s “Eddie Eagle” program for kindergarten through sixth grade. The safety awareness program teaches children when they encounter a firearm to stop, don’t touch, run away and tell an adult.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat from Des Moines, supported adding the gun safety classes. He said kids come across guns and need to know how to respond.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines

“At some point, we have to take a stand and say, ‘Hey, how do we educate our children?’ ” he said on the House floor.

School districts also would have to offer the NRA’s hunter safety education course for students in grades seven to 12.

The free, online program teaches students how to safely handle a firearm and informs them of hunting regulations.

“None of it is in-person firearm training or handling of a firearm. It’s all online-based education,” the NRA’s Jones said. “If the Iowa DNR wanted to require some sort of in-person handling of firearms in order to receive a hunting license, they would offer that program. It wouldn’t be offered through NRA’s hunter safety education.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, a Democrat from Windsor Heights, said schools should be allowed to choose which gun safety program they offer. For example, gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action offers a Be SMART program that promotes safe gun storage.

Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights
Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights

“We don’t believe at a time when Republicans are telling kids what they can and can’t read, telling teachers what they can and can’t talk about in the classroom, that adding curriculum on gun safety and hunting safety is something that we need to be focused on right now,” Konfrst told reporters Thursday.

“This is beyond what the country and our state should be doing in a time when we have increased school shootings across the country.”

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, Iowa’s main public teachers union, said in a statement that parents should have the basic right to educate their own children about firearms as they see fit.

ISEA President Mike Beranek  (Supplied photo)
Mike Beranek, ISEA president

“Education professionals should have the right to teach the fundamentals of a quality education without partisan politics inserted in the middle,” Beranek said. “No one believes gun violence can be controlled with more curriculum on gun safety. The issue can only be controlled when we decide guns are not as important as the safety of our students and staff.”

A related firearms bill is active in the Iowa Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, could not be reached for comment. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Comments: (319) 398-8499; tom.barton@thegazette.com

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