Public Safety

Five years after passage of the "shall issue" gun law, views remain mixed

Are we safer?

Sara Pumphrey of Cedar Rapids holds her gun while receiving instruction from Cedar Valley Outfitters owner Ernie Traugh
Sara Pumphrey of Cedar Rapids holds her gun while receiving instruction from Cedar Valley Outfitters owner Ernie Traugh at a private shooting range near Bertram on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015. In late 2010 just one in 75 Iowans had a license to carry a gun. Now, five years after the state's “shall issue” law took effect, one in 12 Iowans can legally bear arms in public. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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In late 2010 just one in 75 Iowans had a license to carry a gun. Now, five years after the state’s “shall issue” law took effect, one in 12 Iowans can legally bear arms in public.

That more than sixfold increase in gun permits — accompanied by a corresponding increase in the sale of handguns — raises the question: Are Iowans more or less safe than they were before?

“I don’t really have a feeling on that one way or the other. I could argue either side of it,” said Lonny Pulkrabek, sheriff of Johnson County, where permits increased from 547 at the end of 2010 to 6,515 at the end of November.

In Linn County, where permits climbed from 1,433 to 15,854 in the “shall issue” era, Sheriff Brian Gardner is equally ambivalent.

“You’d have to know that an increased presence of armed citizens is deterring crime, and we can’t make that correlation,” he said.

Gardner said, however, he’s certain the increased presence of licensed gun carriers has not caused a rise in crime.

“The bad guys with guns are of much greater concern,” he said.

This chart shows the number of residents in Iowa who received concealed carry permits. Data was made available by the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Seasonally adjusted data was obtained through Seasonal.

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The spike in the number of permits came in the same month that Iowa's shall issue law took effect.

Both Gardner and Pulkrabek said they believe Iowans are less safe to the extent that the “shall issue” law removed their discretion to deny permits to individuals known not to be law-abiding citizens.

Jeremy Brigham, executive director of Iowans for Gun Safety, said he shares Pulkrabek and Gardner’s concern.

“This is especially true in urban areas where the only targets for guns are people,” he said.

The proliferation of guns and permits to carry them creates a false sense of security that actually can undermine safety when permit holders are not well trained, Brigham said.

On Dec. 31, 2010, at the end of the time when gun permits were issued at the discretion of county sheriffs, 39,405 Iowans were licensed to carry weapons.

With sheriffs required since Jan. 1, 2011, to issue permits to Iowans who meet certain qualifications, that number stood at 254,140 at the end of November.

Those numbers are “not necessarily perfectly representative of the number of active permits at a moment in time, as (they do) not account for suspensions and revocations,” noted Ross Loder of the Iowa Department of Public safety.

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Numbers

Gardner said the state’s murder and violent crime rates, which had been declining steadily in the decades leading up to the law change, have continued to do so.

The number of murders per 100,000 Iowans has fallen from an average of 2.14 per year in the 1970s to an annual average of 1.48 in the partial decade beginning in 2010.

Iowa’s violent crime rate — which includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — peaked in 1995, at 354 crimes per 100,000 residents, and has since been trending downward to 263 per 100,000 in 2014.

Perhaps the most notorious crime involving an Iowan with a permit to carry weapons was the June 12 shooting death of Andrea Farrington at the Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville. The man charged with murdering her, Alexander Kozak, had a valid carry permit issued in Mitchell County.

Notwithstanding that notable exception, Pulkrabek and Gardner said their most frequent problems with permit holders involve the carrying of weapons while intoxicated.

“We haven’t seen much stupidity here in Buchanan County” as a result of the increase in gun permits from 244 in 2010 to 2,066 at the end of November,

But Sheriff Bill Wolfgram said that, “We haven’t seen much stupidity here in Buchanan County” as a result of the increase in gun permits from 244 in 2010 to 2,066 at the end of November. “Really, we’ve had a few arrests of people carrying while intoxicated, and that’s about it.”

In Jones County, where carry permits increased from 370 to 2,204 in the “shall issue” era, Sheriff Greg Graber said his department has dealt with few incidents related to permit holders.

“The expectation or fear of such incidents has not materialized,” Graber said.

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“It certainly has not turned into the wild West, shoot ’em up scenario that we were warned against at the time,” said Marion gun dealer and trainer Ernie Traugh, whose Gazette guest column, “I carry a gun every day,” went viral online after its publication a year ago.

Iowa’s law change from “may issue” to “shall issue” definitely increased handgun sales, he said.

Traugh said he has sold “just shy of 3,000 guns” in 2015, his highest single-year sales since he opened Cedar Valley Outfitters in Marion in 2001.

Traugh estimates that handguns constitute more than 60 percent of his sales, and that military-style semi-automatic AR15 rifles make up about 25 percent of his long gun sales.

Since he opened his store in Marion, Traugh said he has completed more than 40,000 gun sale transactions, many of which involved more than one gun.

With a sales margin typically averaging between 8 percent and 11 percent, Traugh said he is not getting rich selling guns.

“I make more money training people to handle guns than I do selling guns,” he said.

Traugh said he believes that more than 90 percent of carry permit applicants buy a handgun.

Background checks

While no precise record of gun sales is available, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which determines if a potential gun buyer is legally qualified to make the purchase, provides the closest approximation.

NICS firearm background checks have increased nationally every year from 2003 (8.48 million) through 2013 (a record 21.09 million). After declining slightly to 20.97 million in 2014, checks appear to be headed to a record in 2015.

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In Iowa, firearm background checks gradually increased from 87,796 in 2000 to 124,738 in 2010, then surged to 179,944 in 2011, the first year of “shall issue.”

In the first three months of 2011, the monthly totals of background checks in Iowa were, respectively, 28,239, 21,226 and 24,621 — three of the four highest monthly totals ever recorded in Iowa.

This chart shows the number of residents in Iowa who received background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System program. Data was made available by Buzzfeed. Seasonally adjusted data was obtained through Seasonal.

The spike in the number of background checks came in the same month that Iowa's shall issue law took effect.

A recent New York Times analysis of federal background check data found that fear of gun-buying restrictions surpassed mass shootings and terrorist attacks as the main driver of gun sales.

The Times analysis noted gun sales surges after the election and re-election of President Barack Obama, an advocate of increased regulation of gun sales.

Following the December 2012 killing of 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gun sales did not set records until five days later, after President Barack Obama called for banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, the Times analysis found.

Those surges have been echoed to a less obvious extent in Iowa, where the preponderance of background checks since 2011 has been largely attributable to Iowans seeking carry permits under the “shall issue” law.

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While the license application provides no insights into why people seek gun permits, Linn County’s Gardner said “people do volunteer that they need to protect themselves in this day and age.”

People these days hear more about violence on television — from shots fired in Eastern Iowa cities to mass shootings and terrorist attacks — and have a greater knowledge of it, he said.

Such concerns motivated several carry permit holders and applicants interviewed during recent Traugh-taught training sessions.

Alicia Patik, 55, of Swisher, who got her carry permit in 2011 and recently attended a class required for renewal, said she sought the permit out of concern for her own safety and that of her children.

Patik, who regularly practices rapid-fire shooting with her handgun, said the five-hour class, conducted Dec. 20 at Traugh’s store, emphasized the responsibilities inherent in carrying a weapon.

“He makes sure everyone understands the gravity of carrying a weapon and the severe consequences for its irresponsible use,” she said.

Those points were brought home so often and forcefully that first-time permit applicant Jerry Akers, 57, of rural Palo said he “almost got the impression that Traugh was trying to talk us out of carrying a gun.”

“This is not fun and games,” said Akers, who once believed life in Iowa would never come to the point where he thought he would need to carry a gun. “We live in a very scary world with things going on I thought I would never see.”

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Akers said the recent theft of his pickup, which was parked 15 yards from where he’d been sleeping, crystallized his intent to “be prepared if something happens.”

Sara Pumphrey, 28, who works as a psychiatric nurse in Cedar Rapids, said she got her permit early in 2015 because she “wanted the option to be able to protect myself and my family.”

Pumphrey, who trains with Traugh at a private range, said she feels safer and better able to defend herself with the knowledge and training she has acquired this past year.

“We can’t count on law enforcement to always be there. We need to take some responsibility,” she said.

Monica Miner, 32, of Anamosa, who operates a cleaning service, said she acquired her carry permit two years ago to feel more secure on the job.

Miner said some of the houses she cleans have been broken into, she is often alone and the attached garages are often unlocked.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” said Miner, who has taken range classes to increase her comfort and confidence with her handgun.

Chris Esser, 32, of Marion, said he got his carry permit in August 2012 after an incident that sharpened his understanding that “personal protection comes down to you and you alone.”

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Esser, who practices once a month with his handgun, said he never again wants to experience the “helpless feeling” of being in a store that was robbed.

Some sheriffs still concerned

Five years after “shall issue” became law and standardized the process to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, opinions of the measure have not changed among proponents or opponents.

Sheriffs such as Brian Gardner of Linn County and Lonny Pulkrabek of Johnson County, who say the law change took away their discretion to issue permits to non-law-abiding citizens, feel the same today.

“The concerns that I had five years ago are the same concerns I have now,” Gardner said. “Literally sheriffs have no discretion whatsoever in issuing these permits.”

On the other hand, sheriffs such as Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington, who supported the legislation in 2011, said there has been no negative impact to speak of since the law went into effect.

“It gives (permit carriers) another tool if something bad would happen,” he said. “They have it with them.”

Discrepancies

After Gardner took office in 2009, he told a group of sheriffs that if something wasn’t done about the discrepancies in obtaining carry permits, someone else would act for them.

“And we won’t like the outcome,” he said.

That prediction came true when “shall issue” became law in 2011. The law laid out seven prohibiters sheriffs could rely on to deny a carry-permit request — such as conviction of a felony or aggravated misdemeanor involving a firearm and addiction to alcohol. Sheriffs no longer could deny permits if they believed the applicant was not a law-abiding citizen or had mental health issues.

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“I know that I’ve been required to give gun permits to people who I don’t feel are responsible enough to have them,” Gardner said. “I make this comment based on criminal record and comments from family members who tried to persuade me not to issue the permit.”

Other issues Gardner and others have with the law as it is currently written is people who obtain a permit can openly carry in public, which Gardner said causes unnecessary concern. He also points out that a person can be drinking and carrying, as long as they are not legally intoxicated.

Gardner said he’d like to see the law revised to allow sheriffs to make “common sense” decisions when it comes to permits, such as denying them if a family member believes the applicant has mental-health issues despite not being declared mentally incompetent by a judge.

He concedes that there have been few, if any issues, related to permit holders obtaining weapons and using them to break the law.

“Maybe not,” Gardner said. “But there are people out there that I do not believe are a good risk to provide carry permits to. I don’t think any sheriff wants to say, ‘I told you so.’ We’re all holding our breath and hoping that never occurs.”

Wethington, however, resists the notion that sheriffs cannot deny applicants they think are unfit to carry a gun.

“I deny people,” he said. “There’s a process (applicants) can go through if they feel wrongly denied ... I’ve had nobody appeal it. I don’t just deny people because I can. There are people who should not have a permit. I deny them and they don’t get their permits.

Without naming names, Wethington said sherifs who say they don’t have any discretion are “anti-gun.”

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“They’re basically acting like junior high school girls who haven’t gotten their way, so they’re taking their ball and going home,” he said.

Wethington said if he denied a permit and a judge overturned the denial, he would have “the peace of mind” of knowing that he did what he could to prevent that person from obtaining a carry permit. He also believes the judge’s signature on that order protects him from any liability.

Most people who obtain permits to carry don’t carry the weapon all the time, Wethington said. Those who do are people who like to be prepared, he added, saying those are the type of people who always wear seat belts when they drive and keep fire extinguishers in the kitchen.

“They keep the tools around they need just in case,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of psychos who think everybody should have an AR-15 everywhere we go.”

‘Positive’

Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley and a “shall issue” supporter, said the law has been “absolutely positive.”

“Iowans have demonstrated to all the naysayers out there that we are reasonable, responsible people,” he said. “There have been almost zero cases of major complaints ... There has not been blood in the streets. We haven’t turned into the wild, wild west.”

“We’re talking about Iowans’ constitutional rights here,” he said. “It should not be easy for an Iowan’s constitutional rights to be denied.”

While Cedar Rapids has seen a rise in gun violence in recent years, Gardner and Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said that’s not related to “shall issue.”

“An overwhelming majority are not permitted gun carriers,” Jerman said.

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Jerman added that he agrees with Gardner and Pulkrabek in that they should have more discretion when issuing permits.

For Coralville Police Lt. Shane Kron, “shall issue” has meant more calls for service involving guns, including more stolen guns or people with guns causing concerns with the general population.

“We’ve had very few — but I can’t say none — of issues of people doing something really stupid with a gun,” Kron said. “Just waving it around.

“People still don’t expect or find it normal to be walking down the grocery store aisle with a gun on their hip ... We’ve had a few of those, but not as many as we thought we might.”

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