I grew up with guns. In a small, rural part of the south, my family and friends always had guns for hunting and self-protection. As a kid I shot cans off fenceposts and sometimes went hunting with my dad or brother. I was the first member of my family to go to college, and my parents were a little concerned when I went off the University of Florida. I lived in a trailer in Gainesville, and in my first semester someone broke in by ripping the doorknob right out of the door. The next year, a serial killer named Danny Rolling started killing young women near the campus. My parents’ first instinct was to tell me to come home. When I refused, their second instinct was to tell me to come home and get a gun.
I ended up staying together with some friends, and fortunately we stayed safe. But the point here is, I understand that people want to keep firearms to defend themselves and their families. A reasonable right to keep and bear arms for protection is what the Second Amendment protects.
The bill before us today is not an exercise in Second Amendment rights. It is an extreme bill that would eliminate the statutory permit requirement to carry a firearm in Iowa. Under this bill, a person can buy a gun from another person or an unlicensed dealer with no background check. The buyer could be a felon or a domestic abuser or a mentally ill person, and the seller could have no way to know that. And then the buyer can carry that gun anywhere in public except for a school or university. People can carry guns into Wal-Mart or a grocery store or a public library or pretty much anywhere else with no permit and no background check.
In 2018, Republican Rep. Windschitl, said in a television interview that we would not go “down a road that is extreme where we’re undoing the regulations we have in the books now.” And yet, here we are undoing regulations we have in the books now. Well, at least he admitted it’s extreme. It’s also worth pointing out that Governor Reynolds refused to support a permitless-carry bill in 2019, saying that she thought requiring a background check to get a permit was “good policy” and “the right thing to do.” She said she stood by the shall-issue permitting system we currently have and that she voted for in 2010.
What this shows is that with every passing year, pro-gun laws in Iowa are becoming more and more extreme. And common-sense gun safety legislation – supported by the overwhelming majority of Iowans – is going away or becoming harder to pass.
Supporters of this bill call it “constitutional carry.” As a constitutional law professor, it really bugs me when people say things are in the constitution that aren’t. It seems like any time people really want something or think something is important, they say it’s in the constitution. Well, you can call this bill “constitutional carry” all you want, but the constitution does not carry this bill. In 2008, the Supreme Court decided in the District of Columbia v. Heller case that the Second Amendment provides a fundamental individual right to keep and bear arms. But the Court made it very clear that the state can place restrictions on that right.
Justice Scalia, one of the most prominent conservative justices that has ever been on the Supreme Court, wrote the Court’s opinion in Heller. Here is what he said for the Court:
"Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. [N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
This language shows that, consistent with the Second Amendment, states can put reasonable restrictions on gun rights. Many states have restricted concealed carry since the 1800’s with no constitutional problems. Iowa enacted a permit requirement for concealed carry a century ago and has had a more general gun permit requirement for over four decades.
The fact is, no constitutional right is absolute. No constitutional right is unlimited. No constitutional right is a free-for-all. By eliminating a reasonable permit requirement to carry guns, this bill treats gun rights more favorably than other fundamental rights like the First Amendment right to free speech and the right to vote.
The First Amendment right to free speech is a fundamental right. It is arguably our most important freedom – as I have said before in this chamber, there is a reason the First Amendment is first. And yet, there are restrictions on free speech rights. For the most part, you can’t speak in a way that risks serious harm to others. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. You can’t lie about someone and defame their reputation. You can’t say something that incites violence. But under this bill, dangerous people can get access to guns and carry them in a way that risks harm to many people. Under this bill, you can carry a gun on a school bus for God’s sake.
Voting is another fundamental right. It is probably the most important right to our democracy. But there are restrictions on this right too. Every person has to register to be eligible to vote, and thanks to the law you all passed in 2017, every person has to show an ID to vote. So although voting is a fundamental right, Iowa law says you have to both register and show an ID.
And yet, when it comes to obtaining and carrying a gun, this bill says you don’t have to register for a permit, and you don’t have to show a permit or ID.
In fact, the election law just passed puts all kinds of limitations on voting. Meanwhile, the gun permitting system passed ten years ago made things easy. It only requires a person to get a permit every five years, and it is a shall-issue system which means that if you meet basic eligibility requirements, the permit must be issued to you.
And then there are the rules related to felons. State law prohibits convicted felons from voting until they have completed their sentence. By requiring people to register to vote, the law can prevent felons from voting. Similarly, under the current gun permit system, law enforcement can track when felons and domestic abusers apply for a permit. Law enforcement can also track when people who already have a permit commit felonies or domestic violence crimes that cause them to lose that permit. But there is no effective way to track all of that under this bill.
My former sheriff says that in Johnson County alone, we get approximately one felon per week applying for a gun permit. And for those who already have a permit, the system identifies 5 or 6 people per month who commit crimes that cause them to lose their permit. Again, that is just in Johnson County alone. If you think about the entire state, that could be hundreds of dangerous people committing crimes every month who should have their guns taken away under existing law. But with this bill, we will have no way track them on an ongoing basis. This will make it much more difficult to prevent gun violence before it happens.
The Second Amendment provides an important right, and I support that right. But like other constitutional protections, the Second Amendment is not a blank check. Our nation’s history and Supreme Court precedent make clear that, consistent with the constitution, states can put reasonable restrictions on gun rights in the interests of public safety.
Our current shall-issue permit system is a very reasonable system that strikes a balance between the rights of gun owners and the rights of all Iowans to be safe in public places. Under this bill, Iowa would have no gun permit system for the first time in more than forty years. And getting rid of the permit system is not being done to protect a constitutional right of gun owners but just to make things more convenient for them. As the Iowa legislature, we should not privilege the convenience of some over the safety of all. Our duty is to the best interests of the entire state.