What you need to know about the bill that will get more Iowans killed

Voting mostly along party lines, the Iowa House approved on March 7 a bill containing many items on the gun lobby’s wish list. House File 517 would make it easier for Iowans to acquire, carry, and use firearms, relaxing permitting rules, expanding where people can bring concealed weapons, and enacting “Stand Your Ground” language. The bill is certain to pass the Republican-controlled state Senate, due to the heavy involvement of pro-gun groups in defeating several Democratic incumbents last year. Governor Terry Branstad has never seen a gun bill he didn’t like, so will surely sign House File 517 when it reaches his desk.

The most important likely result will be more shootings of unarmed people by Iowans newly entitled to use deadly force, without having to demonstrate that any person was in danger, or that the shooter had valid reason to feel threatened. Other states that adopted “Stand Your Ground” legislation have experienced a documented increase in homicides, with no evidence of deterrence effects. After Florida enacted a law similar to what the Iowa House just passed, “there was an abrupt and sustained increase in the monthly homicide rate of 24.4% […] and in the rate of homicide by firearm of 31.6% […].”

As State Representative Ras Smith underscored by putting on a hoodie during the Iowa House debate, African-Americans will be at particular risk, since research indicates “Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.”

More tragedies may also occur in Iowa municipal offices, thanks to provisions making it harder for cities and counties to ban weapons from government buildings.

I enclose below some highlights from yesterday’s debate and details on House File 517. Because gun advocates continue to spread misinformation in order to build a case for “Stand Your Ground,” I also included relevant language from current state law and an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

Iowa House Democratic staff prepared this four-page analysis of House File 517. From the summary on the first page:

– Allows for the possession of sawed off shotguns in the state.
– Reduces background checks required to purchase firearms.
– Allows for the use of deadly force to protect only property, such as allowing deadly force to stop a teenager from stealing tools from your shed or shooting someone that has been breaking into cars in your neighborhood.
– Makes all personal information on permits to carry, which are currently public records, confidential and inaccessible to domestic abuse victims, people being stalked, or news outlets.
– Allows concealed carry in the state Capitol.
– Allows anyone under the age of 21 to possess a pistol or revolver with supervision.
– Prevents officials from keeping weapons off the street in a time of public emergency, such as a riot.
– Expands who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon on K-12 school grounds.
– Creates a process to prevent cities and counties from regulating the possession of firearms and prohibits counties from regulating some firearm use within the county.

State Representative Matt Windschitl has been the key Iowa House Republican on gun bills for years. His family is in the gun sales business and stands to profit from legislation making it easier to acquire weapons. He has advocated for abolishing all gun permitting rules.

A few bad provisions from Windschitl’s initial draft didn’t make it through the legislative process. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register on March 1,

It originally included state preemption language that would have blocked cities, counties and the Iowa Board of Regents from enacting restrictions on the use of firearms. Representatives for public hospitals and community colleges publicly opposed those changes during hearings at the Capitol, saying they don’t believe guns should be allowed in those venues.

By removing its preemption language, the bill would revert to existing law, which says any “political subdivision,” such as a city or county, cannot enact bans on carrying firearms. Windschitl said the Board of Regents does not qualify as a political subdivision.

House File 517 doesn’t merely revert to existing law, though. As the Democratic staff document explains, Division VII

Creates a process for anyone that is adversely affected by an ordinance, measure, enactment, rule, resolution, motion, or policy to file suit to prevent the enforcement of the policy. The court must award reasonable attor- ney’s fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in such a suit.

Under current law, a political subdivision is only prohibited from issuing an ordinance regulating the ownership, possession, legal transfer, lawful transportation, registration, or licensing of firearms.

The new language on pre-emption prompted State Representative Dave Heaton to cast one of the two Republican “no” votes yesterday. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

“Inside this capitol, underneath this golden dome, if those folks have a permit to carry, they should be able to carry that firearm in this building,” Windschitl said. “After all, they’re paying for this building. They pay for our salaries. They pay for these seats we sit in. Their Second Amendment rights should not be abridged at the door just because it makes someone feel safer.”

The bill would let citizens sue cities and counties that establish “guns free zones,” too. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, cited the 1986 murder of Mount Pleasant’s mayor during a city council meeting as he announced his opposition to the bill.

“There are things in this bill that are right. Stand your ground — fine. But the capitol building? No,” Heaton said. “And, especially, denying the right to my city council to forever forbid weapons — except in the hands of security — in that city councilroom.”

Here’s more background on that 1986 shooting in Mount Pleasant. Anyone who has served on a city council can confirm that some local policies inspire intense opposition. Outbursts are common when angry citizens attend public meetings or challenge some government action affecting their property. The last thing we need is more people to be armed in these heated situations.

I have asked State Representative Michael Bergan why he was the only other Republican to vote against House File 517. I will update if I can confirm which provisions were most problematic for the first-term lawmaker.

Side note: State Representative Sharon Steckman noted the irony of House Republicans adopting new rules this year to prevent lawmakers from displaying charts and graphs during floor debate, while now voting to let members of the public bring guns into the chamber.

The most controversial part of the bill is the so-called “Stand Your Ground” language in Division X. State Representative Mary Wolfe, the lead House Democrat on this issue, has supported a number of GOP gun bills that came before the House in recent years. However, she has repeatedly sounded the alarm about Stand Your Ground. From Pfannenstiel’s February 23 report on a public hearing:

The current version of the bill says a law-abiding person does not have a duty to retreat from “any place where the person is lawfully present” before defending themselves with deadly force. It also says a person may be wrong in their estimation of danger or about how much force is necessary “as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief … and the person acts reasonably in response to that belief.”

“Just because they are afraid, they can kill someone,” said Renaldo Johnson, a Clive resident who is black. “That is highly concerning to me, because I could just possibly walk in a room, somebody could be afraid and they feel threatened, and I’m on the ground with a bullet in my chest.”

Rep. Mary Wolfe, a criminal defense attorney and the lone Democrat on the subcommittee, said Iowa essentially has “stand your ground” provisions already on the books.

“(Current law) makes it clear that there is no duty to retreat, ever, unless you can do so without putting yourself or anyone else that you are trying to protect in any danger at all,” she said. “You can stand your ground in Iowa. You do have to be reasonable as to the level of force that you use.”

The concept of being able to “stand your ground” sounds more appealing than “having to retreat,” so I was surprised the recent Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found only a “slim majority” (54 percent) of Iowans supported Stand Your Ground legislation.

Wolfe suggested that a better poll question would be, “Should it be legal to use deadly force to prevent theft of lawn tools from storage shed?” She elaborated in an electronic communication that House File 517 is written

to create legal presumption that deadly force is reasonable when used against a person who unlawfully enters my place of business by stealth (e.g., a trespasser) and to allow use of deadly force if one has “reason to believe” (as opposed to a reasonable belief) that an abduction is taking place. […]

Biggest issue for me is that under current law it is never considered reasonable to use deadly force purely for purposes of preventing interference with or theft of property – which makes sense since theft is not a capital offense. But under [the] bill deadly force is legally presumed to be reasonable when used to prevent or terminate Burglary 3rd – so if you’re sitting inside and see a teenager wheeling your kid’s old trike out of your detached garage you would be legally justified in shooting him dead, thereby terminating the burglary (with prejudice).

UPDATE/CORRECTION: According to House Democratic staff, an amendment offered by Windschitl during the March 7 debate removed “the definition of ‘violent felonies,’ including any burglary, that allow for the use of deadly force and replaces it with forcible felonies, which includes assault, murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping, robbery, arson, or burglary in the first degree.”

During yesterday’s debate, Wolfe warned her colleagues, “This bill has pieces in it that make Iowa a more dangerous place to live. It may not be the intention, but that is indisputably the result.”

Pfannenstiel recounted the dramatic moment captured in the photograph at the top of this post.

“The idea that you can be wrong in your estimation of a threat, but as long as you have good reason, is terrifying for some of us, but only a few of us, in this chamber or in this body,” said [Ras] Smith, who is one of the few black legislators in Iowa. “The impact of this legislation on people who look like me but may not dress like I do when I’m here Monday through Thursday will be an increased risk of being killed.”

To punctuate his point, Smith put on red headphones and pulled a gray hoodie over his head.

“This is what Rep. Smith looks like when he’s not in a suit and tie — with his tattoos on and his earrings — this is what I look like,” he said. “So this is that threat that you can perceive every day.”

UPDATE: Iowa Starting Line posted more of Smith’s remarks. Here’s the video, courtesy of the House Democrats.

Gun advocates (invariably white) have denied in communications with me that Stand Your Ground would put dark-skinned Iowans at greater risk, despite evidence from national research on the issue. I’ve asked a few of these advocates to back up their groups’ unsubstantiated claims that law-abiding Iowans are frequently locked up after using a gun for self-defense. Here’s part of a February fundraising e-mail from State Senator Rick Bertrand on behalf of Iowa Gun Owners:

You see, under current law’s “duty to retreat,” innocent gun owners are routinely prosecuted for nothing more than protecting themselves.

In fact, they’re often sitting ducks for anti-gun prosecutors and judges looking to appear “tough on gun crime.”

Bertrand didn’t respond to my request for evidence that “innocent gun owners are routinely prosecuted for nothing more than protecting themselves.” Aaron Dorr, the none-too-ethical leader of Iowa Gun Owners, could provide no examples other than the case of Jay Rodney Lewis, who “spent 112 days in jail before he was found ‘not guilty’ of defending himself after two men chased him down in West Des Moines.” Representatives of the Iowa Firearms Coalition likewise failed to present any example (other than Lewis) of Iowans being prosecuted over a self-defense incident.

Lewis is African-American, so his ordeal points to systemic racism in Iowa’s criminal justice system, not to any problem with current “duty to retreat” language. Why can’t Windschitl or gun lobbyists point to any other case of a law-abiding gun owner being arrested and charged under similar circumstances?

This document, prepared by the Iowa County Attorneys Association in 2012, when Republican lawmakers were pushing for Stand Your Ground legislation, corrects some misconceptions about “Castle Doctrine” and the “duty to retreat.” Starting on page 4, you can find an important Iowa Supreme Court ruling from 1979.

Iowa County Attorneys Association Executive Director Corwin Ritchie argued in a 2012 statement on that year’s Stand Your Ground bill,

without the existence of any demonstrable problem, the drastic changes proposed in HF 573 will increase the danger to Iowans; they encourage escalation of violence in the face of a conflict, rather than de-escalation. As trained law officers can tell you, “shooting first and asking questions later” will not make any Iowan safer.

The far-reaching effect of the proposed legislation is not limited to gun violence. Assaultive conduct of all kinds will be more difficult to prevent and to prosecute. Domestic abuse first comes to mind. Thanks to Legislative insight over the past 25 years, Iowa law has improved the safety of those who suffer abuse in domestic situations. However, if enacted, these new proposals will provide the abuser with a ready defense and will increase in-home violence, all to the detriment of the victims who are primarily women and children.

In addition, changing Iowa law in this manner will place law enforcement officers in greater danger and will put them in contradictory positions when confronted with violent situations, both in the home and out.

Some Republican lawmakers have reportedly assured constituents that law enforcement helped shape House File 517. For instance, a reader who attended a town hall in Conrad heard State Representative Pat Grassley assert that the gun bill was drafted with input from the law enforcement community. Windschitl described the bill yesterday as “a balance in regards to what law enforcement has to do to protect and serve the citizens of the state of Iowa.”

Iowans should know that no major law enforcement organization endorsed this legislation. Lobbyists representing the Iowa State Police Association, Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, and Iowa Department of Public Safety all registered as “undecided.” The Iowa Police Chief Association (FKA Iowa Police Executive Forum), Iowa County Attorneys Association, and Iowa Attorney General Department of Justice all registered against it.

During the March 7 floor debate, Republicans voted down several Democratic amendments to the omnibus gun bill. The House Journal contains all the roll calls, which mostly fell along party lines. Democratic Representatives Scott Ourth and Bruce Bearinger occasionally joined Republicans, as did Charlie McConkey on one amendment related to short-barreled shotguns. Republican Andy McKean, a former Jones County supervisor, joined Democrats to support Mary Mascher’s amendment striking language on local pre-emption. (I will ask Heaton why he voted against that amendment.)

Republicans made one small concession during the floor debate, approving Ourth’s amendment that would require a parent’s or guardian’s “physical presence” maintaining “visual and verbal” contact with any minor using a handgun.

Ourth and Bearinger were the only Democrats to vote for House File 517 on final passage. Ourth told me today,

The bill, in its original form, was absolutely horrible, and I was a definite “no” vote. What worried me was that the bill was going to pass in a form that would have been very dangerous, especially to children, college campuses, etc.

Knowing that Rep. Windschitl was eager to show at least some bipartisanship on the bill, I sat down with him in an attempt to pull back on some of the extreme measures and add safety measures back in. In the end, I was able to get parental supervision redefined to mean close physical proximity conducive to hands-on instruction.

Also, we got background checks at private gun sales put back in, along with a ban on firearms on college campuses and permits to obtain and to carry.

In the end, I supported the bill for two reasons: I was invested in making the bill infinitely better (something way worse would have passed were it not for my collaborative efforts).

Also, once the bill was modified I voted yes because it was representative of the wishes of the vast majority of the folks in my district. I got hundreds emails and phone calls urging me to vote “yes” and hardly any asking me to resist. So, in the end, I voted my district after crafting a bill that was far and away safer and more reasonable than what would have passed with out my offer of bipartisanship.

Bearinger said in response to the same question,

I worked with representative Ourth on the amendment to insure that parents had to be in proximity to the child to provide safety training to their child. In addition, they removed parts of the bill relating to college campuses, open carry, and permitting. I had some concerns with the final bill, but overall, it was consistent with the correspondence I had with many of my constituents. I rely on our democratic caucus analysis of legislation and have always found it to be valuable, but ultimately I rely on my own values and the extensive work I do to stay in tune with the desires and beliefs of my constituents in my rural district.

There’s no question that House File 517 could have been worse. Allowing guns in college dorms (where binge drinking is common) or college classrooms (where students under pressure may lash out at professors or classmates) would have been a disaster. I also am aware that Democrats representing small-town and rural districts encounter far greater pressure to support gun bills that do their colleagues in urban or suburban districts.

I remain convinced that Wolfe was right when she said the bill will “make Iowa a more dangerous place to live.” Within a few years, I expect to see data showing homicides on the rise here, just as researchers have observed in other Stand Your Ground states.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Top image: Photo by State Representative Helen Miller of State Representative Ras Smith speaking on the Iowa House floor during debate on House File 517 on March 7.

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