Public Safety

Gun bill seeks 'stand-your-ground' law in Iowa

Measure would bring sweeping changes to state's gun laws

The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Iowa would be the latest state to adopt a stand-your-ground law if a proposal for revisions in gun regulations filed this week comes to pass.

The self-defense measure introduced in the Iowa House is part of a study bill that would bring sweeping changes to gun laws in the state.

Under House Study Bill 133, introduced Monday by Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, other provisions include removing the renewal requirement for permits to carry firearms and allowing minors of any age to handle a handgun in the presence of a parent or guardian.

“It’s got a lot of concepts in it that are trying to, I think, achieve the right balance,” said Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will hear the bill.

An Iowa law known as the castle doctrine currently protects the use of deadly force when a person acts in self-defense in his or her home, business or car. HSB 133 allows for the use of deadly force for self-defense anywhere a gun owner can lawfully carry. The bill does not require a person to retreat from a threat or call police before using deadly force.

Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington said he supports the stand-your-ground provision, arguing that retreating is not always an option.

“Even if there is a stand-your-ground law, you still have to be able to articulate why someone was going to use deadly force or cause serious injury to you or a loved one,” Wethington said.

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Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, however, doesn’t feel the current law needs changing when it comes to reasonable force.

“What I’m concerned about with stand your ground is that it will make it much easier for someone to take someone’s life and simply say, ‘I felt threatened,’” he said.

The issue of stand your ground gained national prominence after the Feb. 26, 2012, fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, then 28, in Florida.

Zimmerman’s defense waived an immunity hearing on using the law, and instead went to trial arguing self-defense. Al though defense attorneys did not argue stand your ground at trial, standard jury instructions in homicide cases in the state include provisions of the law. A jury acquitted him of second-degree murder in July 2013.

Jeremy Brigham, executive director of Iowans for Gun Safety, said HSB 133 would “considerably weaken” Iowa’s gun laws, which he evaluates based on their contribution to decreasing gun-related deaths and injuries. He said stand your ground “opens up a can of worms.”

“How are you going to know if you’re really defending yourself or if you’re taking the initiative if you think you’re being attacked?” Brigham asked.

The proposed bill also would also do away with a requirement that those with permits to carry weapons have to renew the permission every five years. Instead, the permit would be good for the life of the holder.

Pulkrabek and Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said the renewal process allows sheriff’s offices to review permits to ensure something hasn’t changed over the five years since the permit was issued that could potentially disqualify the holder from possessing the permit — such as a change in mental health or a series of drug and alcohol-related offenses.

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“There are people who were initially entitled to a permit, but during that five-year period, they became ineligible to have that permit,” Gardner said.

Under the bill, new applicants also would be allowed to complete online training courses to demonstrate knowledge of firearm safety. Pulkrabek, however, said someone who carries a permit but has never handled a weapon could be a safety threat. Wethington agrees that hands-on training is vital.

“I do not support internet online training,” Wethington said, who said the permit classes he runs include four hours of class time and four hours of range time. “You have time to take people that don’t really have the skill set and make sure they’re safe before you put your name on (the permit). Not only is there the issue of public safety, but it’s just like driving a car — you need to be proficient about what you do.”

If adopted, the bill would remove age requirements for minors handling handguns under the supervision of a parent or guardian. Currently, Iowa law requires that a minor be at least 14 to handle a handgun.

Aaron Dorr, executive director of Iowa Gun Owners, said that’s an arbitrary age limit.

“Quite frankly, it’s absurd,” he said. “We want those kids to safely be taught to use a firearm. No one can do that better than a parent.”

Brigham, however, questions the logic.

“Kids don’t understand the consequences of their actions,” he said. “They can handle rifles as it is, but handguns? Really? That’s not a hunting instrument.”

Other provisions include removing a penalty for carrying a weapon while under the influence if someone is in his or her own home or business; keeps information on people who possess weapon permits confidential; allows carrying firearms on snowmobiles and ATVs on property that doesn’t belong to the carrier; and legalizes short-barreled rifles and shotguns.

The bill would establish state control over firearms, essentially preventing cities and counties from enacting their own gun regulations.

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Baltimore said he believes the bill has the votes to make it through the legislative funnel, but concedes it could see some changes before it goes to the House.

“I’m not going to predict what the bill looks like when it gets to the floor,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.

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