Staff Editorial

Clean up gun law before harping on 'activist' judges

Iowa's 'stand your ground' law needs another look

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Judges are grappling with how to apply firearm edicts handed down by the Iowa Legislature last year. Yet instead of clarifying past intent, lawmakers are on to the next thing, a Constitutional amendment intended to further restrict the court and all but enshrine existing ambiguity.

The proposed amendment, which must pass next year’s General Assembly before placement on a general election ballot, is among the most extreme because it requires more protection for firearms than what exists at the federal level. Iowa would join only three states — Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri — that provide gun laws the highest threshold of judicial review, strict scrutiny. Compelling reasons for gun restriction in those states must be crafted into law as narrowly as possible because a higher priority is placed on weapon possession and ownership than for other government objectives like transparency or public safety.

Iowa supporters specifically point to a judicial decision to bar firearms from county courthouses as a way local “activist” judges thwarted legislative intent and infringed on the rights of gun owners. According to the National Rifle Association, such Constitutional amendments “build an iron wall” around gun rights.

Yet since 2010, when Iowa became a “shall issue” state, the Legislature has enacted a barrage of gun rights laws. Perhaps the largest and most hotly debated change was adoption of a “stand your ground” law, which allows use of “reasonable force,” including deadly force, and provides criminal and civil immunity.

But, as two recent court cases show, lawmakers who crafted the bill did not include a process for determining immunity. This has left judges to interpret intent, which can lead to disparate outcomes for Iowans with similar charges. Did lawmakers intend for Iowans to still face prosecution, immunity to be decided afterward? It’s unclear. As a result, current law requires the type of judicial activity the proposed amendment intends to curtail.

Given the purposefully long process for altering the Iowa Constitution, this board and state residents have time to debate the implications of raising the judicial bar. Existing law does not have that luxury.

If this crop of lawmakers is concerned about how future courts and General Assemblies will interpret or alter the gun laws they enact, they should clean their mess by clarifying their intent.

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