House File 527, the “Omnibus” Firearm Bill

So this week the Iowa House of Representatives passed House File 527 (https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/Published/LGI/86/HF527.pdf),  a bill dealing with firearm issues. The bill has several provisions, some of which are clearly good and some of which are arguably problematic; however, it is important to note that the Iowa Sheriffs & Deputies Association, the Iowa Police Chief Association, and the Iowa Peace Officers Association are all registered in support of the bill. It’s also important to note that this bill has nothing in common with any of the “Stand Your Ground” bills that we’ve dealt with in the past (and will no doubt be required to deal with in the future), and that each piece of legislation that comes before us deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Does House File 527 have merit? Yes, in my opinion. Importantly, unlike many of the gun bills we’ve seen in the past, HF 527 was the product of lengthy negotiations between members of the (Democratic) Senate majority party and members of the (Republican) House majority party, in consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Safety and representative of Iowa’s law enforcement agencies. I wasn’t part of these negotiations, and it’s not a perfect bill, for sure, and I’d rather be voting on education bills, but … as a member of the House minority party I don’t get to pick the bills I vote on. And after careful consideration (including consideration of constituents’ emails advocating both for and against the bill) I was a yes on this bill. For your edification, I’ve set out some of the major provisions of the bill below, as well as some of my reasons for voting yes.

Creation of an electronic database:  In Iowa, permits to carry weapons are issued by each county’s individual sheriff. This bill requires the Iowa Department of Public Safety to create a uniform carry permit, and to maintain accurate records of all valid carry permits and permit revocations in a searchable electronic database, which will be accessible to law enforcement on a statewide basis. Law enforcement will be required to verify the validity of carry permits using the database, and may also use the database for authorized investigations and/or background checks. Currently, carry permits vary from county to county, and there is no good mechanism by which law enforcement officers can verify the validity of a carry permit from some other county; providing law enforcement officers with immediate access to accurate and updated information regarding carry permit holders will make it easier for law enforcement officers to protect Iowans.

Makes personal information re carry permit holders confidential: Currently anyone can request and obtain information from their local sheriffs regarding the names and addresses of carry permit holders – this bill makes that information confidential. Iowa’s newspaper and broadcasters associations strongly object to this provision of the bill – their lobbyists and columnists have declared (multiple times over the past few weeks) that people have a “right to know where the guns are.” The argument is that “if my child is spending the night at a friend’s house, I want to know if there are guns in that house” or “a victim of domestic abuse needs to know whether his/her abuser has guns for safety planning purposes” or “I have a right to know if the guy sitting next to me at the movie theater is carrying concealed.”

I acknowledge that some people might have legitimate reasons for wanting to know if a specific person owns a gun, but here’s the thing: the majority of Iowans who do own guns don’t have a carry permit, so … if your local sheriff informs you that the subject of your inquiry doesn’t have a carry permit, all you really know is that s/he doesn’t have a carry permit – which in no way guarantees that s/he doesn’t legally possess guns (maybe lots of guns) in his/her home. And the vast majority of gun murders are committed by folks who do not have and never have had a carry permit, and thus the lack of a carry permit is (or should be) pretty much irrelevant to the issue of safety planning.

So if you are sincerely worried about your child possibly being exposed to guns during a sleepover, I’d suggest that instead of calling the sheriff you’d be better off just calling up the parents of your child’s friend and asking them whether they have guns in their home – if you don’t like (or don’t trust) the answer you get, then you probably want to cancel the sleepover. And in my opinion, the safest bet for a victim of domestic violence who (understandably) wants to know whether his/her abuser has a gun is to always assume that the answer is yes, and govern him/herself accordingly.

Allows minors to possess handguns under direct parental supervision: Under current Iowa law, a minor of any age can legally possess a long gun (shot gun/rifle), and a minor over the age of fourteen can legally possess a short gun – aka a hand gun – for certain purposes under certain conditions. This bill (when read in conjunction with federal law) gives a parent/legal guardian the right to temporarily transfer physical possession of a hand gun to his/her child for purposes of farming and ranching activities, target practice, or a course of instruction in the safe and lawful use of a handgun – but only while under the direct supervision of either the parent or an instructor over the age of 21, and only on private property or a gun range. (Federal law also allows minors to possess a hand gun for hunting purposes, but I’ve been told that at least in Iowa a hunter would only use a handgun to put an injured animal out of his/her misery, or for protection from a rabid animal, so that’s not relevant to this discussion).

This provision of the bill caused many members of my caucus, as well as some of my constituents (hi mom) a lot of angst. I understand that concern, and I agree that allowing a very young child to engage in target practice with a handgun sure sounds like a bad idea, even if it’s under the direct supervision of a parent.

However, the many Iowans who contacted me to voice support for this provision correctly pointed out that as parents, they have a constitutional right to make responsible decisions regarding their children’s welfare and day to day activities, and they insisted that they are fully capable of determining if and when their children are emotionally and physically mature enough to safely handle a short gun under the direct supervision of a parent/instructor. Parents also pointed out that it’s very difficult to teach a child gun safety if the child cannot physically touch the gun. Additionally, a representative of Iowa’s Isaak Walton League testified during subcommittee that Iowa gun ranges would appreciate the opportunity to sponsor one or more of the many national hand gun target shooting competitions in which scholarships are awarded to minors under the age of fourteen – currently that’s not an option, and Iowans are at a disadvantage when competition in those competitions in other states. And, as noted above, law enforcement signed off on this provision.

So ultimately, since I do respect the right of parents to responsibly parent their children, and since I was unable to find any studies/reports/statistics documenting a statistically significant higher incident of child related shootings in the many states in which parents are already allowed to make this decision, I did not find this provision problematic enough to merit a no vote.

And by the way, regarding that nine year old girl who shot and killed her instructor while target shooting at an Arizona gun range – she was using a fully automatic sub-machine gun, which (1) is a long gun and which (2) is classified as an offensive weapon under Iowa law and thus illegal for anyone to possess. So that was a horribly sad incident for everyone involved, but it has nothing to do with this bill.

Decriminalizes firearm suppressors: Firearm suppressors (aka silencers, although they don’t actually silence a gunshot) are legal under federal law (pursuant to heavy regulation) and are legal in 39 states. Under current Iowa law suppressors are classified as offensive weapons, and thus most Iowans can’t legally own one; this bill would decriminalize the possession of a firearm suppressor in Iowa, although Iowans would still have to comply with an expensive and time consuming federal application process and background check in order to obtain one.

So why would any non-criminal want a suppressor? I’ve been told that the noise level on shooting ranges – especially indoor shooting ranges – can be very unpleasant and even dangerous; suppressors assist in reducing the noise level considerably while allowing shooters to engage in normal conversations (which is not the case with earplugs). As far as suppressors being used for illegal purposes – e.g., to facilitate murder – anyone who wants a suppressor for illegal purposes can already make one, or buy a homemade one on the black market, and there’s no evidence that the legalization of suppressors triggered an increase in shootings/murders in the 39 states that currently allow suppressors. Do I want a suppressor? No, but I don’t target shoot – plus I can’t really afford a suppressor, which range in price from about $500 to $1,500, and there’s a $200 application fee on top of that. Does anyone really need a suppressor? Probably not – but a lot of Iowans sure want one. And for Iowans who do spend a lot of time on a gun range, a suppressor might well be a reasonable investment – and since there’s no evidence that decriminalizing suppressors puts Iowans in danger, I don’t see any good reason for them to remain off limits to eligible Iowans.

Note that in addition to decriminalizing suppressors for legal purposes, this bill makes it a Class D felony for someone to illegally possess a suppressor, and a Class B felony for someone to engage in ongoing criminal conduct involving firearm suppressors. Additionally, under the bill a person who knowingly solicits, encourages, or entices anyone to transfer a firearm or ammunition in violation of state or federal law will be guilty of a class D felony, as will anyone who knowingly provides false information regarding such an illegal transfer.

Allows certified peace officers to possess a firearm on school property: Just certified peace officers – not teachers, not security guards, not private investigators, and definitely not students (who are not eligible for a carry permit under current law or under the bill).

There’s more but those are arguably the highlights. And I voted yes, because several provisions of the bill really do implicate important constitutionally protected rights (the 2nd Amendment, and the 14th Amendment’s implicit right to be left alone aka right to privacy), and I’m very protective of all of the rights set out in our state and federal constitutions. And also because Iowa’s police and sheriff associations gave the bill a thumbs up – we require and rely on law enforcement officers to protect us from gun violence, so it makes sense to look to law enforcement for guidance on these type of issues. And also because a lot of Clinton County residents emailed me and asked me to support the bill.

And I also voted yes because none of the many organizations registered against the bill (some of which I have great respect for) were able to provide any statistics or reports or evidence that any of the bill’s proposed changes to the law would actually put Iowans at risk – I heard a lot of comments along the line of “common sense says this is a dangerous bill,” but in my opinion that doesn’t justify a no vote on this type of a bill, in the absence of any documentation that any of the provisions of the bill have actually had an adverse impact on the residents of other states in which the provisions have already been implemented. Right?

Note that this bill still has to pass out of the Senate in order to become law (I’m assuming the Governor will sign it if it hits his desk), which doesn’t appear likely to happen any time soon, despite the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed out a bill identical to HF 527 with little debate. So we will see.

In the meantime, it is my sincere hope that now that we have dealt with this bill – and the controversy surrounding it – here in the House, we can turn our focus to taking care of business; however, based on what we did today (spent  hours debating a bill attempting to codify exactly what a doctor must do prior to performing an abortion, regardless of the medical circumstances with which the doctor is presented and regardless of the fact that standards of medical practice are constantly changing/evolving), funding our schools and our mental health institutions and everything else that desperately needs funding doesn’t appear to be a priority of the House powers that be. But there’s always next week.

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About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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