Iowa lawmakers forge ahead on gun debate
State, national leaders seek balance between safety, freedom
By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON — From Des Moines to D.C., state and federal lawmakers are taking their first slow steps toward firearm legislation after last year’s mass shootings in Connecticut.
At the Iowa Statehouse, legislators have unanimously pushed a two-part bill through the House Judiciary Committee that would partly shield personal information that is listed on gun permit applications to local sheriffs. It also would crack down on secondhand gun sales — so-called “straw purchases” — by making it a Class D felony to buy a gun for another person.
“That’s the only thing that has traction so far,” state Rep. Matt Windschitl of Missouri Valley told The Gazette. “These are fairly new ideas, but the Democrats I’ve talked to say they’re open to it, so I’m optimistic we can get it to the House floor.”
With the Assembly’s remaining weeks dwindling, the bill still faces challenges — Republicans control the House by just three votes, after all, and so far there is no companion bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But Windschitl, a six-year legislator known for pro-gun legislation, pointed to the unanimous approval given to the bill by the House committee, and said he personally plans to pursue a more bipartisan approach this year than he has in the past.
However, Windschitl downplayed any suggestion that the bill was motivated by the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 children and six adults.
“There are some people who have a better understanding now in looking at the need for legislation, and there are some people who have frankly hardened their anti-Second Amendment positions,” he said. “I don’t think it’s pushed anyone from their original side over to the other side.”
In Washington, where Iowa’s veteran Sen. Chuck Grassley holds the top Republican position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, that committee last week voted 10-8 to pass a bill to establish universal background checks. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, who wrote the proposal, calls it “the sweet spot” among Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol, given that there still remains widespread opposition to limiting the ammunition capacity of assault rifles.
Currently, background checks are only conducted at commercial gun stores, and are not required at gun shows. Iowa’s state law also is spotty — Windschitl said some dealers at shows conduct them, while others do not.
However, there has been somewhat of a shift in recent months after a massive public relations effort by the National Rifle Association against any gun-control legislation. Whereas in December many Republicans were openly talking of such measures as reviving the 1994 assault weapons ban which expired in 2004, that door has likely been closed shut after the NRA’s lobbying.
Grassley expressed a willingness in December to at least consider reviving the ban, but now says “it wouldn’t make any difference.” He insists he hasn’t changed his mind, pointing out that in December he wanted to also consider cracking down on excessively violent video games and close loopholes allowing the mentally ill to obtain handguns — positions he says he still believes in.
The other huge hurdle for any gun-control legislation is the Republican-controlled House, where no firearms bills have yet surfaced. That angers Iowa Democrats like Rep. Dave Loebsack, who said he has held months’ worth of town hall meetings across the state, and believes the idea of universal background checks has widespread support.
“I have done my job and listened to folks across Iowa. It is a shame that the House of Representatives has so far refused to even bring up the simplest of bills, like background checks, for a vote,” Loebsack told The Gazette.
It is not a cheap fight in Washington — the NRA spent $17 million to influence federal elections in 2012. Campaign finance records at the Federal Election Commission show the group donated just shy of $7,000 to Grassley in 2009 and 2010, during his most recent re-election effort.
Iowa’s other senator, Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Health Committee, also is playing a lead role in the evolving discussion in Washington. Harkin wants to expand federal resources that are available to those with mental illnesses, but last week he also called for a “meaningful” gun-control bill “that isn’t just window-dressing.”
Harkin said he believes a background check bill can pass the Senate.
“The public pressure is building for background checks,” Harkin said. “Whether you sell a gun privately, or online — everything. Everyone who buys a gun should have a background check ... It would be a big issue in an upcoming campaign if you don’t even support background checks.”
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for Harkin’s seat next year, said last week he supports a background check bill and is at least considering limiting ammunition magazines in assault weapons.
Braley sits on the House Oversight and Governmental Reform, which last week began considering legislation to improve limits on those with mental illnesses from obtaining a gun.