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Iowa Democrats vie for ‘Back the Blue’ mantle during gun rights debate
Gov. Kim Reynolds this week signed a bill that promises to reduce racial disparities in the justice system. Oddly, it was Republicans leading the way and Democrats defending the status quo.
During gun policy debates in the Iowa Legislature last month, Democrats fell all over themselves to proclaim that they are the real 'Back the Blue” party. They read statements from their local police officers and pitched a series of amendments intended to give cops the 'tools they need” to fight crime.
House File 756 was approved by both chambers last month and is set to take effect in July. Under the bill, permits to carry or acquire a handgun will become optional. It's known as a 'constitutional carry” by some advocates.
Federally licensed firearm dealers still will be required to perform background checks before selling to unpermitted buyers. Iowans still can get permits from their local sheriff's office if they want to purchase multiple guns in a five-year period without undergoing a new background check each time, or if they need a carry permit while traveling to another state.
Democrats opposing the bill emptied a magazine of tough-on-crime talking points and shot holes through the truth.
'This bill bans or kills background checks in this state, there's no doubt about it,” said Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames.
For that to be true, all federally licensed firearm dealers in Iowa would have to go out of business, and no Iowan would seek a permit to carry out-of-state. Seems doubtful.
The truth is most gun sales in the United States happen with a background check, and that's unlikely to change under Iowa's new gun rights package.
PolitiFact in 2018 reviewed a Democratic presidential candidate's claim that a quarter of guns are sold without background checks. Fact-checkers rated that 'mostly false,” citing a survey that found about 13 percent of gun owners purchased guns without a background check.
Detractors are particularly worried about private sales between individuals, outside the federally regulated system. Democrats debating the bill employed racist tropes about bad guys lurking in the alleys. They spun up hypothetical situations about people doing stuff they can already do undetected by law enforcement.
Under current law, private handgun sales require the buyer to have a permit to acquire, although there are several exceptions, including one for permitless transfers between family members. Since sales are not tracked, it's easy for Iowans to flout the rules.
The new law bill will remove the requirement for permits in private sales, but provide new penalties for people who knowingly sell guns to ineligible buyers. Critics say that will be difficult to enforce, but so is the status quo.
Firearm restrictionists love to mention they are gun owners or 'grew up around guns.” Those in the Iowa Legislature are powerful, privileged and overwhelmingly white, so of course they think they should be allowed to own guns. Some of them are old enough that their childhood shooting memories predate the modern permit system. It's the common people they want us to be afraid of.
Many progressives can see the untenability and racist impact of our drug laws, but they somehow can't see how the same applies to guns. Black Iowans are much more likely to be convicted under gun control laws than white Iowans.
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Black people make up less than 4 percent of the state's population, but they accounted for more than a quarter of convictions for acquiring a handgun without a permit in 2019, according to a minority impact report from the Legislative Services Agency. Analysts concluded the bill will have a beneficial effect on the law's disproportionate minority impact.
The law being enacted in Iowa is estimated to reduce convictions by hundreds each year and save the justice system up to $4.7 million annually, although new criminal offenses created by the legislation could counteract that progress.
The gun control lobby says it's already easy enough to get a gun permit in Iowa. That's probably easy to say if you've never purchased a handgun in Iowa.
Former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver signed a law in 2010 bolstering gun rights. The law diminished sheriffs' discretion in granting gun permits, codifying that the sheriff 'shall issue” a permit to any eligible applicant.
Yet county sheriffs still have considerable discretion over the permitting process. Sheriffs can allow for online applications but many don't. If the sheriff drags out the process and withholds a permit for several weeks, citizens have little recourse.
At the peak of a deadly infectious disease pandemic last year, my local sheriff was still making folks come to the office to hand over paperwork. That happens to be the same building as the county jail, a potential COVID-19 hot spot. There's a new sheriff in town, but he's also asking constituents to file their applications in person as the pandemic is ongoing.
Under the new gun rights law, thousands of Iowans still will be barred from possessing firearms, even though many of them pose no serious threat to the public. Because of racial disparities in the justice system, any law restricting felon rights has a racist impact.
Even on this politically charged subject, there is room for bipartisan agreement. Recently, the House unanimously passed a bill to expunge certain low-level felony convictions, which would allow some former offenders to regain their firearm rights.
Democratic State Rep. Mary Wolfe, a defense attorney who opposed the gun rights omnibus, acknowledged the existing regulatory regime is too complicated. Some Iowans who are ineligible to possess guns might not even know it.
'That's our fault. We write the laws, and some of them are Byzantine and nobody understands them,” said Wolfe, D-Clinton.
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Updated Monday, April 5: This column was updated to clarify existing law on private handgun acquisitions.
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