Letter to the Editor

Capitol Comment: The Legislature and the Second Amendment

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You may be weary of reading about Iowa's state budget mess, and I confess I'm a little tired of writing about it. So I intend this week to revisit the money matters only briefly, then move on to the important change we made in Iowa's personal protection law.


When lawmakers are in session, the budget gets the lion's share of media attention, and the fact is certainly reflected in my columns which concentrated on appropriations bills and processes -- sometimes ugly -- by which they are passed.

I voted against each appropriation bill this session. They all spend too much of your money with too little oversight. Maybe worse, these spending bills used accounting gimmicks to permit the heavy spenders to pretend we could afford them. The prime example is paying for ongoing programs with one-time Washington handouts. That's easier than the hard work of overhauling necessary programs to make them sustainably affordable.

Dealing with a billion-dollar deficit by approving the second largest budget in Iowa history is hardly "making the tough decisions" that legislative leadership promised at the beginning of the session.

But, enough of that. I can happily report that the session actually dealt with matters other than the budget.

Second Amendment Rights

American attitudes on firearms laws have been changing substantially over the past two decades. Experience indicates onerous gun laws do little to curb crime and may, in fact, foster it. The obvious reason that criminals, by definition, flout laws.

By the beginning of this year, some 37 states had "shall-issue" laws on permits to carry concealed weapons. In the final hours of this session, Iowa potentially became became the 38th. The measure still requires Gov. Culver's signature.

I voted for the measure despite a serious personal reservation. Many Iowa sheriffs, including some for whom I have the utmost personal respect, opposed the measure curbing their wide discretion to deny permits. I add emphatically that sheriffs in the counties I represent, Clay and Dickinson, have never been accused of abusing that discretion.

In the end, however, I had no choice but to honor the Constitution of the United States, especially in light of the 2008 Heller decision which clearly confirmed that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right "to carry" for self-defense.

I am somewhat sorry, however, that the shall-issue law was another example of legislation passed in a cynical backdoor manner. In a better world, important laws would be proposed and debated as stand-alone matters. They would pass or fail on their own merits.

In the final days of a legislative session, leaders find a vehicle to move controversial legislation without much political risk. Wanting a bill to give political cover to their legislators up for reelection, leaders use catchall appropriations bills. These are supposed to be about money only but frequently contain significant policy changes.

This year's Standings Bill and RIIF Bill, both appropriations measures, became the most popular vehicles for significant policy matters that should have been considered on their own. Let me explain.

Iowa has long allowed each county sheriff wide power to issue or deny concealed weapons permits. The policy is referred to as the "may-issue" system. In other words, law-abiding citizens could be denied a permit to carry even though they qualified under state or federal statue.

Sheriffs argued that they had a pulse on the people in their district and sometimes knew citizens who might technically qualify for a permit but were not an acceptable risk to be issued one. They also suggested that if people in their county didn't like their decision-making, they could be voted out of office.

Second Amendment advocates correctly argued that some sheriffs were issuing no permits and that some denied permits to people who should have easily qualified. In other words, their right to carry was being denied in an arbitrary manner.

In the end, Iowa Second Amendment activists won the day. The new law retains some objective criteria for denial but in general requires sheriffs to issue permits to citizens who are not legally barred, who pass criminal background checks, and who undergo the necessary training. The measure also brings Iowa in line with most other states in "reciprocity" -- honoring one another's carry permits.

Here's where the politics get interesting. The new legislation was one of several last-minute amendments to the Standings Appropriations Bill. Why, at the end of session? Easy. Because an election is coming, and it gives disingenuous legislators a chance to have it both ways.

They could vote against the amendment and try to keep it off this appropriation bill. However, knowing that gun rights advocates were going to be angry at their vote they were provided a second chance. They could vote for the appropriations bill (which 51 majority party members had to support) which contained the new "shall-issue" language. Thus they could claim that they voted for the code change.

Majority leadership knew this would be a pivotal issue in some House and Senate races and they dare not refuse to bring the bill before the legislature. So what could they do? They figured out how to have it both ways.

It would be interesting to live in one of those legislative districts and see post cards coming to constituents claiming their legislator had supported the new law and to others claiming to have voted against it. "I was against it before I was for it."

This is an example of why we as voters must be asking the right questions and looking carefully at voting records on amendments and bills.