Branstad signs sweeping gun legislation, detractors and proponents react

Governor Terry Branstad signed the most sweeping change in gun legislation in Iowa history, House File 517, into law yesterday.

All the Johnson and Linn County Republican legislators voted for the bill, and all the Democrats voted against, with the exception of Kirsten Running-Marquardt (D-Cedar Rapids), who was absent. It passed the Senate on April 4 and the House on April 6.

The new legislation signed by Gov. Branstad on April 13, 2017 allows for some major changes in how Iowans interact with guns. — photo cropped for size from an image by Hank Hession

Rep. Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids) said she did not vote for the bill because many of her constituents reached out to her and told her they were against it.

“Gun violence is a big issue in my district so anything dealing with firearms is something I have to look really carefully at,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the main reason she voted against the bill was the inclusion of “stand your ground” language. Stand your ground means if someone believes their life is in danger, they don’t have to try to escape from the aggressor before using deadly force.

“There are certainly very clear situations where in order to get out of a situation, you may have to use deadly force. I understand that. There are other situations where it’s hazy, where maybe two people get into it. They exchange words, tensions rise, people are becoming angrier with each other. I think this makes it easier to escalate that situation into shots fired,” Bennett said.

She also said she feels stand your ground is unnecessary because Iowans can already use deadly force without attempting to retreat if they face attackers in their homes.

Kurt Liske, vice president of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said the previous code was too restrictive.

“If you’re being mugged or robbed or whatever the case may be, the last thing you should have to worry about is if you’re pursuing the legal duty to retreat,” Liske said. “We are giving Iowans the ability to use their best discretion moving forward in a self-defense situation.”

Bennett said she is also concerned that stand your ground legislation can be disproportionately harmful to people of color, citing a report by the American Bar Association.

Liske said there is language in the bill that would counter that factor, language which he said is not frequently discussed by those who oppose stand your ground.

“If you say, ‘Hi, John Doe next to me looks threatening and I felt scared and so I defended myself and now he’s dead,’ while it’s a horrific tragedy, just like the loss of any life, if it’s not found to be reasonable and you acted in an unreasonable manner, well guess what, you’re still going to find yourself in front of a judge, you’re still going to be facing murder or manslaughter charges,” Liske said.

This reasonableness standard is general practice in most states in cases of self-defense whether they have stand your ground or not, according to the American Bar Association report.

“What people who support stand your ground will say is the courts will take care of it; the courts will do justice. Well, there’s no justice for that person who’s dead now,” Bennett said.

Another controversial provision HF 517 allows children of any age to use a handgun under the supervision of a guardian who is over age 21. Previously, the age limit for handguns was 14; now it is in line with all other types of firearms in the state. When asked if there is an age at which he feels children are too young to use a gun, Liske said it is up to the parent to decide.

“They know better than 150 legislators in Des Moines when their child proves to be ready,” Liske said.

Another provision of the bill does away with gun-free zones, claiming they violate the Second Amendment, and allows people to sue local government if they feel their rights have been violated in this way. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, defined in a press release as “a grassroots movement of American mothers fighting for public safety measures that respect the Second Amendment and protect people from gun violence,” objected to this provision. The group points out in the release that taxpayers would foot the bill for these lawsuits.

The language of this provision allows guns to be carried into government buildings like courthouses and the state capitol.

Bennett said attorneys, judges and law enforcement have expressed concern about carrying in public buildings because “government buildings are places where often very contentious things happen.”

Bennett said she and other legislators have received threats of violence due to the contentious nature of their jobs and their high public profile, and the provision makes her feel unsafe at work.

“Let’s let the police do their job. I think in a courthouse, the sheriffs are there to maintain order. In the capitol building, the state police are here to maintain order and maintain safety and I think they are the appropriate people to be doing that. “ Bennett said. “I understand that people have the vision of being the one to stop a terrible situation but I would rather stop a terrible situation from occurring in the first place.”

Liske said a Des Moines Register poll and the 2016 election show that Iowans support this type of legislation, but his organization would have liked for the bill to include constitutional carry. This would have removed requirements for a concealed carry permit in order to carry a concealed weapon, for those who can already legally own a gun. To get a concealed carry permit, gun owners must take a class and go through an additional background check, Liske said. Constitutional carry was amended out of HF 517.

Moms Demand Action praised the removal of the constitutional carry provision in its press release, as well as the removal of a provision that would have repealed state law requiring background checks for handgun sales. The release also included a statement from Amber Gustafson, volunteer leader of the group’s Iowa chapter, expressing concern about stand your ground.

“No matter what your position was on this bill, none of us wants to see the kind of homicide rate increase here that other states have seen after enacting Stand Your Ground laws,” Gustafson said.

Liske said he does not expect the bill to have an effect on public safety in Iowa. He said there has been an explosion of concealed carry permit holders in Iowa since 2010, and that “permit to carry holders are some of the most peaceful, non-law-breaking people in our state.”

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