DES MOINES — After Democrats ended a seven-hour walkout to delay action on a proposed constitutional amendment sponsors said would ensure Iowans’ gun rights, the Iowa House approved the legislation 61-37.
“We left in protest so there could be some openness and some transparency and some sunlight drawn on what this issue (that) is very, very extreme, very extreme,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, when he brought his caucus back after4 p.m.
Although the vast majority of House Democrats support the United States constitutional right to bear arms, McCarthy said, “we also believe public safety is very important and there must be a balance.”
The balance would be eliminated, he said, by an amendment to the Iowa Constitution saying Iowans have a fundamental right to “acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes” that cannot be infringed upon or denied. It also prohibits mandatory licensing, registration and special taxation of firearms.
The resolution’s floor manager, Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, tried to dispel those fears.
“Now I’ve heard some people say this will somehow do away with all gun regulations we have. That’s simply false,” he said.
Iowa is one of six states that do not have specific protections in their constitutions to protect Second Amendment rights, he said.
“What this will do is make sure that right now and our future generations have constitutional protections in our state constitution that will not be infringed so our Second Amendment cannot be taken away by future judicial rulings,” Windschitl said.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said every representative probably would have supported the language in the bill as it came out of the Public Safety Committee — simply restating the last 14 words of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We could have passed the Second Amendment out of this chamber over to the Senate and they would be hard-pressed not to vote ‘yes,’ too,” Wolfe said. “We would have done something big.”
However, the “extremely radical” amendment gun rights advocates added goes far beyond any other state’s Second Amendment protection and make it unlikely the Senate will concur, she said.
“So we’re killing this bill tonight,” Wolfe said. “With that amendment, that bill is dead.”
The Senate can take its own course, but that should not stop the House from supporting Iowans’ Second Amendment rights, Windschitl said.
“If they have the courage and they have the willpower and they actually believe in Iowans’ Second Amendment rights and they think we’ve gone the wrong direction they can fix it over there,” he said.
“But today, tonight, Iowans are going to have their Second Amendment rights respected with the most precise protections possible. Iowans deserve these protections. They want them.”
Before they get a chance to exercise any more gun rights than they have today, the resolution will have to be approved by the Senate and then again by both chambers during the next session of the Legislature. The amendment then must be approved by a majority of Iowa voters.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that panel isn’t interested in a “gun rights sideshow.”
The final vote showed two Democrats joining the majority. However, Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, said she did not intend to vote for the bill and filed a statement with the House Chief Clerk.
Rep. Brian Quirk, D-New Hampton, was the only Democrat who voted for the amendment and a separate bill that clarifies when it is justifiable to use reasonable force to defend oneself. That legislation passed 60-38.
The House debate followed a day of inaction. McCarthy led his 40-member caucus out of the Capitol midmorning to protest what he called a betrayal by the Republican majority. He said Republicans had decided just that morning to debate the gun rights legislation.
“We’ve been doubled-crossed,” McCarthy said.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, called that “absolutely ridiculous.” He and House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, said the bills McCarthy was upset about had been on the House debate calendar and were eligible for debate under House rules.
“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.”
No one could remember a previous walkout at the Legislature. Former Senate Majority Leader Cal Hultman, a Red Oak Republican, recalled Democrats went to caucus once in the early 1980s and spent most of the day at a baseball game at Sec Taylor stadium. Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, who was in the House until 1983, said that may have been for recreational purposes and not issue-related.
In 2007, Senate Republicans didn’t walk out, but had an overnight caucus — complete with sleeping bags — to protest the Democratic majority taking up “fair share” labor legislation.
McCarthy said he preferred to call Democrats’ absence an “off-campus caucus” rather than a walkout.
McCarthy said off-campus caucuses are not unprecedented. Both parties have used them. In this case, McCarthy said, it seemed the only option.
“The only power we have as the minority party is to control the time,” he said. “We’ll work with the majority party, but if they are going to elbow their 60-seat majority, we’re going to have our voices be heard.
“Life will go on after this bill, but today was a day we needed to have our voices heard.”
Democrats were also prompted to act by what they see as a change of directions by majority Republicans. After a divisive 2011 session, McCarthy said Democrats saw the opportunity for more bipartisanship.
“We were told by the Republican leadership we were going to focus on jobs and the economy. We were going to focus on bread-and-butter issues and not these divisive social issues,” he said.
But “the train is off the track,” according to McCarthy. “We’re back where we were last year.”
He wouldn’t speculate on the walkout’s impact on the relationship with the GOP, but said Democrats are willing to work across the aisle.
“If they want to come back and work with us in a bipartisan way, we’ll be back ready to work in a bipartisan way on a lot of the issues we’re doing,” he said.“We’re really serious as a caucus when we talk about wanting to focus on our work here that the average, ordinary Iowans want us to do,” McCarthy said.