Gov. Reynolds signs bills eliminating gun permits, giving new legal protection to gun manufacturers and sellers

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

On Friday afternoon, as the Easter holiday weekend was beginning, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office sent out a news release stating that the governor had signed into a law a bill eliminating the requirement for a person to be licensed to buy or carry a gun.

The bill, HF 756, was passed by the Iowa House, with one Democrat joining all the chamber’s Republicans in supporting it, on March 17, the day after a mass shooting in Atlanta killed eight people. It was passed by the Republican-dominated Senate on a party-line vote five days later –the same day a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado killed 10 people.

There have been 20 mass shootings in the United States since March 17.

The new law will go into effect on July 1. Currently, anyone who wants to purchase or carry a firearm must receive a license from their county sheriff’s office. Before issuing the permit, the office runs a check on the applicant using the federal government’s database of persons excluded from owning firearms. If the person passes, they receive a permit valid for five years.

Once the new law takes effect, the permit requirement, and therefore the background check by the sheriff’s office, will be eliminated. Federal law requires any federally licensed firearms dealer to conduct a background check before completing a sale, but all other sales of firearms in Iowa can be done without background checks.

In place of background checks, the bill makes it a felony for any person to sell a firearm to a buyer they “know or reasonably should know” is not legally permitted to own one. Of course, proving what a person knows or should reasonably know can be a difficult legal standard to meet.

During the House debate on the bill, Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Dennison and the bill’s floor manager, conceded that it was unlikely that any could be convicted on the provision of the bill, but claimed that didn’t diminish its ability to deter sales to people who are legally prohibited from possessing guns.

“I understand that you’re talking about maybe there wouldn’t be any convictions,” Holt said. “I don’t think that changes the fact that it’s a deterrent to people who read that and want to be law-abiding citizens.”

The new law also eliminates any permitting requirements regarding carrying guns, either openly or concealed. In yet another demonstration of the Republican majority in the Legislature’s willingness to preempt the authority of local governments, HF 756 eliminates the ability of cities and counties to create ordinances banning the carrying of “firearms, firearms attachments, or other weapons” when carrying them “is otherwise lawful under the laws of this state.”

The bill also allows off-duty law enforcement officers and reserve officers to carry guns on school property. Currently only on-duty officers can do so.

Supporters of HF 756 said background checks were a burden on gun owners and potential gun owners that needed to be illuminated.

“Currently, whether we want to admit it or not, our system of permits is one of mistrust,” Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig said during the debate on the bill. “That means you can exercise a fundamental right, but you must prove yourself not guilty in advance.”

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“That’s not how America is supposed to work.”

During the Senate debate, Sen. Zach Wahls of Coralville, a Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, pointed to the almost 15,000 gun sales the current background check and permitting system has prevented since 1998.

“If the system in Iowa isn’t broken, what are we doing here?” Wahls asked his fellow senators.

In a written statement included in her office’s Friday afternoon news release, Gov. Reynolds said the bill “protects the 2nd Amendment rights of Iowa’s law-abiding citizens while still preventing the sale of firearms to criminals and other dangerous individuals.”

According to the governor, “We will never be able to outlaw or prevent every single bad actor from getting a gun, but what we can do is ensure law-abiding citizens have full access to their constitutional rights while keeping Iowans safe.”

This year was not the first time Republicans in the Iowa Legislature sought to eliminate gun permits in the state. In 2018, there was a similar bill, but that year Reynolds opposed it, saying she supported keeping the state’s permitting system, as gun control advocates pointed out.

Reynolds did not explain in her statement why she changed her stance, and as recently as Wednesday was refusing to answer any questions from reporters about the bill.

Shortly after Reynolds’ office sent its email, Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, responded to the governor’s actions.

“Kim Reynolds’ reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of Iowans is limitless,” Wilburn said in a written statement. “Our communities aren’t safer when criminals can legally purchase a handgun without a background check.”

The NRA also responded to Reynolds signing the bill, praising her decision.

Reynolds signed five other bills into law on Friday afternoon, according to the email. One of them, HF 621, changes Iowa law to create special legal protection for gun manufacturers and sellers against civil lawsuits, preventing them from being sued except in a very limited number of circumstances.

The new state law is based on a federal law that President George W. Bush signed in 2005 to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits because of damage caused by their products. The manufacturers of other products — automobiles, toasters, cribs — can be sued if it can be shown their products are causing injuries or death when used as intended, and the company is not taking all reasonable steps to prevent the problem. Such lawsuits not only make a company pay for negligence, but can be used to force companies to introduce new safety features. After a series of lawsuits were launched in the late 1990s to force gunmakers to introduce more safety features, the NRA and other gun groups pushed to shield guns with special legal protections not available to other consumer products.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden denounced the Bush-era law and said he would repeal it. That’s why the new law is necessary, Sen. Schultz said when the bill was being considered by the full Senate.

“This is a good move to protect the Second Amendment rights by making sure that backdoor gun-control, people-control gun prohibition schemes are not allowed to proliferate in Iowa,” he said.

The new law, of course, would do nothing to prevent federal lawsuits if the 2005 law is repealed. It just bars Iowans from seeking legal remedies in state court.

The email from Reynolds’ office did not include any comments on the change in state law.