116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A Johnson County man's conviction for lying about his criminal past on an application for a permit to buy handguns was overturned Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled the question should never have been asked.
The opinion was released a day after Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law a sweeping expansion of gun rights in Iowa, including a provision extending to five years the period in which a permit holder is allowed to acquire handguns.
The court ruling raised concerns whether it now will be easier for those who know they're not allowed to buy guns to try anyway.
'Now, after the gun law passing, Iowa is leading the way in gun availability,' said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, who said he was in 'disbelief' when he heard of the ruling. 'People convicted of a felony know they are and can't have a gun. There should be some penalty for trying to deceive the state. They don't have a right to own a gun if they're not a law-abiding citizen.'
According to records, James Robert Downey, 51, submitted an application on Jan 14, 2015, to receive a gun permit. He provided information required to verify his identify, such as name and address, driver's license number and date of birth. The form directed him to answer 10 more questions — one of which asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony.
He answered no to that questions, court records show, and gave permission for authorities to run a criminal-background check.
The Johnson County Sheriff's Office ran a check and found that contrary to what he wrote, Downey had been convicted of a felony — for a third offense of drunken driving.
Downey later was charged with and convicted of making a false statement on the application, records show. He was sentenced to a five-year term, which was suspended, and two years of probation.
At issue was whether those 10 questions were even allowed. Downey argued that legislators, in passing in 2010 a law on gun permits, didn't allow the Iowa Department of Public Safety to ask questions beyond the basic ones on identity.
But the state argued the legislation established just the 'floor' of basic questions that had to be asked on the form, allowing authorities to seek more information.
The justices, after dissecting the less-than-clear language of the law, sided with Downey — that it allows the Public Safety Department to 'only' ask the basics.
Ross Loder, the department's bureau chief for weapon permits, said officials were evaluating the next steps to take. They were surprised by the ruling, Loder said, and its implications for not being able to ask what he called 'straightforward' questions.
Asked about the ruling, Linn County Sheriff's Maj. John Godar said since 2011 every sheriff's office in the state runs background checks on applicants for gun permits. So a felon would be identified and denied a permit anyway.
But he noted the ruling might encourage those who know they're prohibited from acquiring guns to try to 'sneak' through.
'Shouldn't there be some penalty for that?' Godar asked.
The gun law Branstad signed Thursday includes a provision that extends the validity of a gun permit from one to five years. That means a permit holder is given more time to acquire handguns before a criminal-background check would be required through a renewal.
However, the new law says an issuing department 'may' conduct an annual background check regardless.
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