Iowa Senate passes major gun bill: what changed, plus debate highlights

Legislation to make sweeping changes to Iowa’s gun laws is headed back to the state House, after the Senate approved an amended version of House File 517 on Tuesday.

All 29 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, joined by Democrats Chaz Allen, Tod Bowman, Rich Taylor, and Wally Horn. The other sixteen Democratic senators and independent David Johnson voted against it. (Taylor and fellow Democrat Kevin Kinney had backed the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Kinney voted against final passage on the floor.)

Follow me after the jump for details on what changed and stayed the same in the omnibus gun bill, as well as highlights from the Senate debate.

Senate Republicans took their time in bringing House File 517 to the floor; the bill cleared the Judiciary Committee more than two weeks ago.

Floor manager Senator Dan Dawson, who is also an agent for the state Division of Criminal Investigation, offered an amendment making several changes, such as:

• A “certified peace officer” or reserve peace officer with a permit to carry a concealed weapon may “go armed anywhere in the state at all times, including on the grounds of a school”;

• The Department of Public Safety will set up rules on transferring a permit to carry a concealed weapon to another county sheriff when a person licensed to carry moves to a new county;

• In the “Stand Your Ground” section, Dawson’s amendment removed this sentence from the House-approved bill: “Reasonable force, including deadly force, may be used even if an alternative course of action is available if the alternative entails a risk to life or safety, or the life or safety of a third party, or requires one to abandon or retreat from one’s dwelling or place of business or employment.”

Notably, the Senate bill left in place language stating, “A person may be wrong in the estimation of the danger or the force necessary to repel the danger as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief of the person and the person acts reasonably in the response to that belief.” That sentence is the key reason the bill will enable trigger-happy Iowans to “shoot first and ask questions later,” especially when they encounter a stranger of another race. Democratic State Representative Ras Smith expressed that fear in a powerful way during the House debate.

During his closing remarks on the floor of the Senate yesterday, Dawson tried to reassure skeptics (beginning around the 5:47:20 mark): “The use of deadly force, or any force for that matter, has to be justified in defense of yourself or another, and the force has to be reasonable. Those two things don’t change here. […] All we are trying to say here in this bill is that you have a right to defend yourself not only in specific areas, but any area you have a lawful right to be.”

Yet we know from research in other states that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with an increase in gun homicides.

• Dawson’s amendment also added two paragraphs to the Stand Your Ground section, in apparent response to concerns raised by law enforcement and civil rights groups. The new language requires a person using deadly force “to notify a law enforcement agency about the person’s use of deadly force within a reasonable time period after the person’s use of the deadly force.” In addition, the shooter “shall not intentionally destroy, alter, conceal, or disguise physical evidence relating to the person’s use of deadly force,” and the shooter “shall not intentionally intimidate witnesses into refusing to cooperate with any investigation relating to the use of such deadly force or induce another person to alter testimony about the use of such deadly force.”

Iowa law already prohibits witness tampering. The new language doesn’t address the reality that after any fatal Stand Your Ground shooting, an important witness to the event will be dead and therefore unavailable to shed light on whether the shooter was really threatened. It’s no coincidence that other states with similar laws have experienced a statistically significant increase in homicides, with no evidence that violent crimes are deterred.

Furthermore, Republicans often claim gun regulations only inhibit law-abiding citizens, never criminals. Suddenly we are supposed to believe that after killing an unarmed person, an Iowan will think oh, I better not destroy any evidence pointing to my unjustified shooting, because that would be illegal. Of course people will try to make it look like they had reason to feel threatened, and try to get others to back up their story. Anyway, witnesses to an unprovoked killing might not need any extra push from the shooter to feel intimidated about telling the authorities what really happened.

Before the Senate voted on Dawson’s amendment, Democrat Tod Bowman offered an amendment to the amendment, to clarify that a parent or guardian supervision children using handguns may not be intoxicated or under the influence of an illegal drug. Senators approved Bowman’s amendment unanimously.

Independent Senator David Johnson then offered his amendment to Dawson’s amendment. He proposed striking the bill’s entire section on local pre-emption (which “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”), as well as the section allowing Iowans to carry concealed weapons on the state Capitol grounds. Discussion of this amendment begins around the 4:33:30 mark of this video. Republicans Dawson and Chapman argued that Iowans with a permit to carry weapons should also be allowed to carry them in “the people’s house.” Bowman recounted a deadly shooting incident in the Jackson County courthouse.

Questioning Dawson around 4:41:00, Johnson held up his own permit to carry a concealed weapon, which he obtained after taking a class at a gun shop, with no training at a firing range or ever showing any proficiency in using his 9-millimeter weapon. Johnson reminded his colleagues of the fatal shooting at a Mount Pleasant city council meeting during the 1980s. He noted that he had co-sponsored limited “Stand Your Ground” legislation in the past, but that this bill goes way beyond that. Current law allowing officials to keep weapons out of public buildings works well, he argued.

Johnson and fifteen Democrats supported his amendment, but the 29 Republicans voted it down, joined by Democrats Allen, Taylor, Wally Horn, Jim Lykam, and Matt McCoy.

The Senate then approved Dawson’s amendment by 49 votes to 1. Only GOP Senator Jake Chapman found these minor changes to the bill unacceptable.

Democrat Kinney, who is also a deputy sheriff in Johnson County, offered the next amendment, which would require applicants for concealed carry permits who completed online handgun safety training courses to show “proficiency with a handgun on a firing range.” Kinney explained the reasoning behind his amendment beginning around the 4:50:00 mark here. He noted that law enforcement officers are required to complete regular proficiency tests, and recalled a woman who came to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office asking for help in learning how to use her pink Glock. She had completed an online course but had no idea what to do with her new handgun. Kinney’s amendment went down on a mostly party-line vote, with GOP Senator Tom Greene joining David Johnson and nineteen Democrats in favor, and Taylor joining 28 Republicans against.

As mentioned above, on final passage four Democrats voted with 29 Republicans to send the amended gun bill back to the House. I am seeking comments from Horn, Bowman, Allen, and Taylor and will update this post as needed if they are willing to discuss their thought process. The two Iowa House Democrats who supported this bill explained their reasoning here. UPDATE: Added below comments from Allen.

According to the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski, “House Republican leaders are expected to accept the changes,” which would send the bill to Governor Terry Branstad. He has already indicated he will sign it.

During their closing remarks on House File 517, several Republican senators hailed a “great day” for Iowa. But who will benefit from this bill?

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, representatives of pro-gun groups have spread massive disinformation about current law on the “duty to retreat.” Many people wrongly believe that “innocent gun owners are routinely prosecuted for nothing more than protecting themselves,” or that current law requires Iowans to run away rather than defend themselves from attack, even in their own homes. Representatives of Iowa Gun Owners and the Iowa Firearms Coalition never did provide more than one example of a law-abiding gun owner being arrested and charged after using a gun in self-defense.

Analysis prepared in 2012 by the Iowa County Attorneys Association explains the law on self-defense and the “Castle Doctrine.” That document includes relevant Iowa Supreme Court rulings and sections of Iowa Code.

As is so often the case, lobbyist declarations indicate whose interests are well-served by pending legislation. The only groups registered in favor of House File 517 are pro-gun organizations (National Rifle Association, the Iowa Firearms Coalition, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation), the motorcyclist advocacy group ABATE of Iowa, and Iowa Western Community College (possibly because House Republicans previously removed language that would have allowed guns on college campuses).

No law enforcement groups favor the gun bill. 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 oppose it. Democratic Senator Pam Jochum warned during a floor speech yesterday that law enforcement officers are concerned the Stand Your Ground provisions will make it more difficult to prosecute assaultive behavior.

Because of language that will make it harder for local governments to ban firearms from public buildings, the Iowa League of Cities, Iowa State Association of Counties, and Polk County Board of Supervisors oppose House File 517.

Because the bill will make it hard to keep guns out of courtrooms, the Iowa Judges Association, Iowa Judicial Branch – Supreme Court, Iowa Court Reporters Association, Iowa Clerks of Court Association, and the Iowa State Bar Association oppose House File 517.

Because of language excluding gun permit information from the open records law, the Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Broadcaster Association oppose House File 517.

Because of Stand Your Ground, provisions making it easier to bring guns into schools and other public buildings, and language making it easier for children to handle handguns, a broad coalition opposes House File 517: the NAACP Iowa Nebraska chapter, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Iowans for Gun Safety, Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance, League of Women Voters, Iowa Chapter-American Academy of Pediatrics, Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, Iowa Catholic Conference, Iowa Annual Conference of United Methodist Church, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

About that last group: in public statements and on social media threads, I’ve seen many gun advocates assert that “Stand Your Ground” will protect domestic abuse victims. Everyone I know who has worked in the field disagrees. Laura Hessburg, public policy director for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, shared her prepared remarks for the Senate subcommittee hearing on this bill. Excerpts:

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) urges legislators to reject this legislation. The link between guns and fatal domestic abuse is so definitive that we cannot efforts to further expand access to guns in our state. Research that shows just living in a state with a high rate of gun ownership increases a woman’s risk of being fatally shot in a domestic violence incident.

We ask legislators to keep in mind that for every case of homicide, there are many more cases where women and their children are held hostage and terrorized with guns. For example, the abuser who never fires the gun- but holds it to her head every night or points it the children.

However, the bill before you today is particularly egregious- not just in expanding access to guns but the stand your ground/justifiable force provision. Iowans being locked up for fatally killing someone that threatens them is simply not a problem here and the harm this bill will do far outweighs any possible benefit from its enactment.

The racially disparate impact of ‘stand your ground’ laws is as indisputable as the fact that domestic violence and guns are a lethal combination.

Domestic violence generally: the presence of guns exponentially increases the risk of lethality- in 53% of domestic violence homicides- guns are the weapon of choice- more than any other single cause of death. However, unlike other forms of domestic abuse homicide- the use of guns expands the number of victims killed.

Absent guns in the household, abusive relationships are about one partner using threats and violence to coercively control another- and physical harm is most directly inflicted on the victim. Children are negatively impacted by witnessing the violence and being used as pawns to threaten a victim.
When guns enter the scene- abusers intent on killing their partner often take out bystanders in the process- children, friends, grandparents, total strangers…in cases of domestic abuse homicide- guns are the culprit for 70% of collateral victims. And for police officers- when guns are present, domestic violence calls lead to more police fatalities than any other type of call.

Stand your ground- impact on DV victims/racial disparities

Let me be crystal clear here- this bill will not prevent domestic abuse homicide. The uneven application of stand your ground laws in states that have them have mostly benefitted white men…at the expense of communities of color and victims of domestic violence.

The dynamics of domestic abuse often create legal barriers to using justifiable force as a grounds for self-defense when women kill partners in the course of defending themselves against an attacker that they know. More often than not, women who kill abusive partners end up in prison and this bill won’t change that. […]

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: In response to my inquiry, Allen explained his decision as follows.

My conversations, emails and phone calls from my district were overwhelming in support of HF 517. Many of the emails I received opposed to HF 517 were not only from outside my district, but, outside the State of Iowa. This fact weighed heavily on my decision to support HF 517.

One other thing I think should be mentioned, after our NO vote on the Republican’s Collective Bargaining Bill, our NO vote on the Republicans Workers Compensation Bill, our NO vote on the bill to defund Planned Parenthood, and our NO vote on the bill to limit a women’s right to her own choices on her own health (20 week bill) I received many “Thank You” notes from not only my district, but, across the State of Iowa. As I am writing you tonight the same has proven true for HF 517, I am receiving “Thank You” notes from my district and across the State of Iowa. And all are appreciated.

I am not surprised that Allen’s constituent contacts strongly favored this bill.

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  • I learned something I missed

    This is a very deep dive and I appreciate that as I didn’t have the patience. And the fact that a person who just shot someone is already intimidating went right over my head. It will be a matter of when not if a tragedy happens and these lawmakers will be responsible.