Iowa House Democrats walk out rather than debate gun bills (updated)

All 40 Iowa House Democrats left the state capitol this morning to protest Republican House leaders’ plans to debate a bill and a proposed constitutional amendment that are among gun advocates’ highest legislative priorities.

UPDATE: Democrats returned late in the day, and I’ve added details below on the House floor debate and passage of both bills the evening of February 29.

House Joint Resolution 2009 would add these words to the Iowa Constitution: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun advocates are clever to leave out the first clause of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which places the right to keep and bear arms in the context of “a well-regulated militia.”

The National Rifle Association prefers more expansive language in the state constitution:

The right of individuals to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms for defense of life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be denied or infringed.  Mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation as a condition of the exercise of this right is prohibited, and any other restriction shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”

Many House Republicans co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 2005, which closely tracks the NRA’s preferred language. But a few days ago, HJR 2005 morphed into the simpler HJR 2009.

The second controversial bill House leaders wanted to debate today is House File 2215, informally known as the “shoot first and ask questions later” bill.  Click here for the full text. The intent is to change the legal definitions of “reasonable force” and “justifiable use of deadly force.” The National Rifle Association calls this bill the “Personal and Family Defense Act,” but the Iowa State Police Association and the Iowa County Attorneys Association have both registered against it. Removing legal references to a “duty to retreat” and eliminating civil or criminal penalties for “justifiable” use of a firearm could lead to more violence in the heat of the moment.

Under normal circumstances, lawmakers who opposed a bill or a constitutional amendment would simply vote against it. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy today accused Republican leaders of circumventing the usual legislative process:

“Yesterday, the Republican Majority Leader gave me a list of the scope of possible bills that might be debated today.  Under House Rules, the amendment filing deadline is the day before bills are debated… in other words… yesterday.

House Republicans have betrayed our trust and have told us today, contrary to what we were led to believe yesterday, that not only are they debating bills they said would not come up, they are going to attempt to alter the Iowa Constitution with extreme gun language that, if enacted, would turn Iowa into the Wild, Wild West.

House Democrats believe too strongly in our Constitution and have too much respect for the legislative process to allow this misuse of power to occur unchecked. We, therefore, in unity, have left the State Capitol in protest.”

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer disputed McCarthy’s claims this morning, telling reporters that both bills were put on the “blue calendar” in accordance with normal legislative procedures.

Clearly there was some miscommunication, but I have no idea whether someone forgot to put the bills on the “blue calendar,” or someone else overlooked them.

McCarthy’s statement is somewhat confusing, because it mixes concerns about process with substance. If the real problem were the “extreme” nature of the proposed legislation, then House Democrats might refuse to debate these bills, period. It sounds like the alleged “misuse of power” is the central issue, meaning that if House Republicans filed the same “extreme” bills today for debate tomorrow, House Democrats would not refuse to consider them.

The timing is important because legislators need to file proposed amendments the day before bills are debated. O.Kay Henderson reported today,

McCarthy alleges that Democrats were unable to file the amendments to the proposals they wished because they were misled about the timing of debate. Upmeyer points to amendments which have been filed by Representative Rick Olson, a Democrat from Des Moines. “So apparently he took it seriously that we might debate those bills.”

Upmeyer added,

“I just don’t know what the surprise is,” Upmeyer said. She recalled that when the GOP was in the minority and Democrats were proposing labor law changes “we prepared for every bill on the calendar, every bill we genuinely cared for.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky released this statement today:

DES MOINES – Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky released the following statement today after House Republicans attempted to abuse their power by breaking an agreement with Democrats and forcing a debate on two of the most extreme gun bills in Iowa history:

“The House Republicans have shown time and again that they are unwilling to govern in a manner that gets results and moves Iowa forward. Their abuse of power this morning shows that they are more concerned about breaking the rules in order to push through dangerous bills than work with Democrats to create jobs, grow our economy, and support education in this state.

“The two bills brought up for debate today are opposed by law enforcement and should be opposed by any Iowan who is committed to public safety. House Republicans have once again mistaken their majority in the House as a blank check to focus on an extreme agenda and abuse their power, instead of play by the rules and work towards a stronger Iowa.

“The House Democrats have absolutely done the right thing by refusing to allow House Republicans to misuse their power in this manner.”

Those words may become embarrassing if a sizable number of House Democrats end up voting for the “extreme” and “dangerous” bills. Past behavior suggests that quite a few statehouse Democrats prefer not to cross the National Rifle Association. Only 16 House Democrats voted against the so-called “shall issue” bill from 2010, which made it easier for Iowans to receive handgun permits. Of those 16, 13 still serve in the state House.

I’ll update this post when it becomes clear how today’s standoff will be resolved.

UPDATE: Governor Terry Branstad weighed in:

“I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do,” Branstad said. “I’ve been in the minority and I’ve been in the majority in the legislature and I’ve always felt that the best thing to do is to not be afraid to state your position.” […]

Upmeyer and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, did attempt to contact McCarthy, but received no response, House spokeswoman Josie Albrecht said.

The Democrats’ exit, Branstad and several longtime lawmakers said, is unprecedented in recent memory. Branstad, who served in the legislature in the 1970s and also was governor from 1983 to 1999, said he could not recall a similar situation in Iowa.

“I think most people think that when you’re elected to serve, you should be there when duty calls,” Branstad.

SECOND UPDATE: House Speaker Kraig Paulsen spoke to reporters in mid-afternoon:

“Leader McCarthy finally called me. We talked briefly. He didn’t tell me where they were and didn’t indicate when they’re going to come back,” Paulsen says. “…The right thing is for them to do is to come back here and do the work that Iowans sent us here to do, so we’ll be patient a little while longer and see if they can make a decision here and give me something a little more definitive to work with.” […]

One of the 40 House Democrats has indicated he and his colleagues will return if Paulsen tables the gun-related bills that prompted this walk-out.  Paulsen, when asked, gave this response: “Someone doesn’t get to have a tantrum and leave the capitol and all of a sudden we’re changing the debate schedule. That’s not how it works.”

Paulsen expects to reconnect with McCarthy by phone later this afternoon. Among the options available is for the House to remain “at ease” without adjourning for the night – essentially a limbo session through the overnight hours.

THIRD UPDATE: The Democrats returned to the capitol in the late afternoon, clearing the way for several hours of debate on the House floor. The House took up the constitutional amendment first. Republican State Representative Matt Windschitl offered an amendment to HJR 2009 that would add this language to the Iowa Constitution.

Right to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms. SEC.1A. The right of an individual to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be infringed upon or denied. Mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation as a condition of the exercise of this right is prohibited, and any other restriction shall be subject to strict scrutiny.

Republican State Representative Lance Horbach then offered an amendment to Windschitl’s amendment, making minimal changes.

Right to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms. SEC.1A. The right of the people to keep and bear arms, as herein expressed, shall not be infringed. The right of an individual to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be infringed upon or denied. Mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation as a condition of the exercise of this right is prohibited, and any other restriction shall be subject to strict scrutiny.

Many House Democrats spoke against the amendments on the House floor. Bob Kressig and Rick Olson noted that the simple language that echoed the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ( “The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) cleared a House committee with bipartisan support. However, few if any Democrats would support the language in the Windschitl amendment. As a result, Olson said, Windschitl’s version of HJR 2009 would be “dead on arrival” in the Iowa Senate, whereas the version that came out of House committee might have passed the Senate.

Windschitl declined to speculate on how many of Iowa’s current gun laws would become unconstitutional if the wording in his amendment were added to the Iowa Constitution. I’m not an attorney, but a plain reading of his amendment suggests that it would invalidate all current permitting rules for guns as well as hunting licenses.

The House approved Horbach’s amendment to Windschitl’s amendment on a party-line 59 to 39 vote. After that, the House approved Windschitl’s amendment by voice vote. HJR 2009, as amended, then passed on a 61 to 37 vote. I will update this post when I find out which two House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the constitutional amendment with the National Rifle Association’s preferred wording.

UPDATE: James Q. Lynch’s report suggests that Democrats Brian Quirk and Vicki Lensing recorded votes for HJR 2009, but “Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, did not intend to vote for the bill and filed a statement to that regard with the House Chief Clerk.”

Shortly before 8 pm, the House took up HF 2215. Windschitl’s opening comments said the wording had been worked on for a long time. He explained the need to clarify that Iowans have a right to use justifiable force anywhere they are allowed to be. He said the bill protects Iowans who need to defend themselves against an aggressor, and that it would expand “castle doctrine” to include someone’s car.

Democrat Rick Olson offered an amendment removing most of the bill’s text, leaving just one paragraph containing a new definition of “reasonable force.” Windschitl reponded that Olson’s amendment would “gut” the bill rather than simplifying it. The amendment was rejected on a party-line 59 to 39 vote.

Windschitl then gave brief closing remarks, promising that Iowans would not “abuse” the rights in this bill. House File 2215 then passed on a mostly party-line 60 to 38 vote. I’m surprised that so many “conservadems” voted against this bill. Quirk was the only Democrat to support it, according to Lynch.

Earlier in the day, Quirk was highly critical of the way Republicans added the gun bills to the schedule:

“This is unprecedented and this has never happened before,” Quirk said. “You always give your word and your word is your bond and, when that’s violated, you lose that trust.”

Quirk said House rules for debate would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Democrats to propose changes in the bills today.

“So they’re basically blind-siding us,” Quirk said of the Republicans.

Quirk also said Democrats need more time to meet in private to review the two proposals, one of which seeks to add a gun-rights amendment to the state constitution.

“That way we can make an educated decision when we’re voting,” Quirk said. “Otherwise, you’re just taking a shot in the dark.”

Looks like he didn’t mind taking a “shot in the dark” after all.

THURSDAY UPDATE: Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe posted her take on the issue on her blog:

I am in full agreement with the 2nd Amendment, and I would like to see it in the Iowa Constitution, so I was happy and proud to be able to vote YES on  House Joint Resolution 2009 when it ran in the House Public Safety Committee – it basically allows an amendment to be added to the Iowa Constitution almost identical in wording to the 2nd Amendment. […]

[U]nfortunately some legislators are attempting to change the bill in such a way that if the constitutional amendment proposed in their version eventually became law, it would arguably make almost any type of restrictions on firearms unconstitutional …. no one could be required to obtain hunting licenses, and people could carry their firearms wherever they wanted, concealed or not, without a permit; and it’s questionable whether people could still be charged with crimes involving firearms.

That’s not what the federal constitution’s 2nd amendment was intended to do, and if the proposed amendment did somehow become part of our state constitution, it would make Iowa a more dangerous state to live in.  And if HJR 2009 goes over to the Senate in the extreme, unreasonable form being proposed by some House members, instead of in the more reasonable form in which it was passed out of the Public Safety committee, the Senate will kill the bill. Period.  Because some people decided that if they can’t have everything they want, they’d rather have nothing at all. Which is fine, but make no mistake – I voted to put the 2nd Amendment into the Iowa Constitution once, and I’d do it again, but apparently I’m not going to have that chance, and neither will the people of Iowa, because some people don’t understand the  meaning of compromise.

Lynch posted more comments from McCarthy explaining the walkout.

“It’s a big deal to alter the Constitution,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said Feb. 29 as his caucus members tried to beat back what they characterized as an extreme expansion of Iowans’ gun rights.

“We left in protest so there could be some openness and some transparency and some sunlight drawn on what this issues is,” said McCarthy, who preferred to call Democrats’ seven-hour absence from the Capitol an “off-campus caucus” rather than a walk-out.

That openness was lacking last year when the House, through what some called parliamentary slight-of-hand, passed legislation leading to the establishment of mourning dove hunting.

“We probably failed in our duty as a minority party last year in the area of openness and transparency when we allowed a raccoon bill be turned into a dove bill on the floor of the House and sent to the governor,” McCarthy said.

“Whether you voted for that or not, there should have been more openness and transparency,” he said.

So Democrats left the Capitol mid-morning and spent the better part of seven hours at a location they did not disclose to have “a good, healthy, productive caucus to buy some time so there can be some sunlight on this very extreme proposal (Republicans) will be pursuing,” McCarthy said.

LATE UPDATE: Lynn Campbell posted a good piece at about county sheriffs opposing the Republican-backed constitutional amendment. Excerpt:

“I think one of the concerns for counties is in our courthouses, where there are emotional situations, what that could lead to, particularly domestic disputes,” said Sioux County Supervisor Mark Sybesma. “In our treasurer’s office, a lot of times people come in very disgruntled – emotions and that type of thing. Guns sometimes aren’t the best mix.”

The number of Iowa gun permit holders has soared from about 40,000 to 100,000 during the past year, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Safety. The increase came after a state law took effect in January 2011 that made Iowa a “shall issue” state instead of a “may issue” state for weapons permits, largely taking away sheriffs’ discretion of whether to issue those permits.

County sheriffs decided Thursday to oppose the latest move by state lawmakers to put the federal Second Amendment right to bear arms in the Iowa Constitution. They said the constitutional amendment would do away with the state’s permitting and regulation of weapons altogether.

“We’re not sure why it’s necessary to move (to) this next step so soon because we’re not sure that’s where Iowans want to be,” said Susan Cameron, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association, which represents law enforcement in Iowa’s 99 counties. “It goes far beyond the U.S. Constitution and what other states have done.”

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  • via James Lynch

    The final vote shows two Democrats joining the majority. However, Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, did not intend to vote for the bill and filed a statement to that regard with the House Chief Clerk.

    The House then went on to pass HF 2215 a bill on the justifiable use of reasonable force to defend oneself, 60-38 with Rep. Brian Quirk, D-New Hampton, again voting with the GOP.


  • NRA nothing to fear

    Maybe the ‘no’ votes just don’t fear the gun lobby any more.  Two weeks ago ThinkProgress reported that the NRA endorsement has no impact on races for Congress.…

    • lots of Iowa Democrats

      lost in 2010 despite getting the NRA’s endorsement: Governor Chet Culver, Senators Becky Schmitz and Keith Kreiman, and State Representatives McKinley Bailey, John Beard, Doris Kelley, Ray Zirkelbach, Geri Huser, Eric Palmer, Nathan Reichert, Larry Marek, and Mike Reasoner.

      • It's been a while

        since I ran in a rural district, long enough that marriage equality wasn’t on the radar. But I heard about guns at the doors a LOT more than I heard about other social-type issues like abortion, school prayer, etc.

    • The One Pack

      The 2010 losses fell heaviest on the ConservaDems and on the rural district members who’d feel most compelled to support an NRA-backed bill, leaving a surviving 40 House Dems that skew more liberal and urban. The sole survivor of the Six Pack, Quirk, was the one who voted with the GOP. (Not sure what happened with Vicki Lensing on the one roll call but I know her well enough to know she’d absolutely oppose a bill like this.)