IOWA LEGISLATURE

Gun rights constitutional amendment moves ahead in Iowa Legislature

Opponents raise concerns about 'strict scrutiny' language

The Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Opponents of an amendment that would write the right to keep and bear arms into the Iowa Constitution said the language goes too far in protecting Iowans’ gun rights, but proponents pushed ahead with the proposal Thursday, saying the matter should be decided by voters.

“I believe some of our rights have been taken away from us for years. This restores that,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and member of a subcommittee that voted 2-1 to approve Senate Joint Resolution 1. “Ultimately, Iowans get to decide this.”

Republicans who control the Legislature are working to pass a resolution — in the exact form previously approved by the 88th Iowa General Assembly — that meets the criteria spelled out to bring a constitutional amendment before voters in the 2022 general election.

If adopted by voters, the state constitution would be amended by adding: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”

Iowa is one six states without gun ownership rights specifically stated in its constitution.

‘Strict scrutiny’

The proposal has drawn opposition for including a call for “strict scrutiny” of any legal analysis.

The legal phrase would make it difficult for future state lawmakers to pass any laws that would seek to regulate gun ownership and could subject existing regulations to legal challenges.

“I view this as radical and unnecessary, and it threatens our network of public safety laws that I think not only keep my family safe but also my rights as a gun owner,” said Traci Kennedy, a mother of two children who moved to Iowa from Missouri — one of three U.S. states with similar strict scrutiny provisions.

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However, Richard Rogers of the Iowa Firearms Coalition said the “strict scrutiny” language is designed as protection against future attempts by lawmakers to place restrictions on the right to own a gun.

“There’s nothing radical about supporting the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights,” Rogers told subcommittee members. He noted 44 states have protections in their constitutions but Iowa does not, making the state “an outlier.”

“This amendment does require the most stringent test, and it will make it difficult to infringe upon these rights. That’s actually a feature, not a bug,” he added. “Let’s move it forward and let the people decide.”

Several speakers advocating using identical language to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, rather than joining Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri in adopting the “strict scrutiny” language.

“I have no desire to ever be on a list with Alabama and Louisiana,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, who voted against the bill in subcommittee. “I don’t see the boogie man that obviously people that support this do. I think this takes us to a new level of uncertainty and extremism that I don’t think Iowa wants to be.”

However, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said he supports the language which will restore and maintain fundamental freedom.

“The point of this is to restrict future gun control bills,” he said. “The rights have been taken away over the years and we are putting them back to the point where they are supposed to be.”

‘Very dangerous’

Denise Kanne did not see it that way, telling the virtual hearing “once we open that can, we would have a hard time clamping it back down. This is going to open it up for irresponsible, radical folks to access guns and I think that’s a very dangerous road to go down so I ask you please do not advance this bill.”

Leslie Carpenter, an advocate for people with serious brain illnesses, told the subcommittee 79 percent of suicides in Iowa are gun deaths, and “the No. 1 way to prevent a suicide is removal of means” — something the proposed amendment will not help achieve.

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Likewise, Amya Thornton, a 15-year-old who said she has been threatened by an adult with a gun, expressed concern the proposal under consideration would create the potential for more students with emotional or mental-health issue to have easier access to a gun at a time when “things are so tense politically. It’s scary for us,” she said.

House action

Across the rotunda in the House Public Safety Committee, a similar bill — House Study Bill 9 — passed 13-6 on a party-line vote.

“The proposed amendment shows “reckless disregard for the gun violence that plagues so many people’s lives, is morally bankrupt and doesn’t have anything to do with protecting freedom,” said Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames.

Republicans also are proposing bills to eliminate background checks from gun permits, remove the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun and allow guns in schools, hospitals, child care centers and courthouses, she said.

The amendment would erect an “iron wall” around gun rights that could prevent background checks for gun purchases, remove the permit to carry requirement and allow guns in schools, hospitals and courthouses.

If approved by voters, the amendment “will likely take down every reasonable gun law on the books” because of the strict scrutiny requirement, she said.

In a time of increased divisiveness, “we need to step back” rather than rush to amend the state constitution, Wessel-Kroeschell added.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, the resolution’s sponsor, agreed that it is “profoundly apparent in 2021 that freedom and liberty are fragile and under greater assault and at any time in our history.”

That’s what makes it critical, he said, to have a “firewall” around fundamental rights, including gun rights, in the Iowa Constitution.

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