DES MOINES — Many significant changes would be made to Iowa’s gun laws if a bill working its way through the Iowa Legislature gains sufficient approval in the coming weeks.
Those charged with keeping the peace and enforcing Iowa’s laws say they have serious concerns regarding some portions of the wide-ranging proposal.
Many of Iowa’s county sheriffs, city police chiefs and county attorneys say their deepest concerns lie with two particular provisions:
• One that would lessen an individual’s burden to justify the use of lethal force in self-defense.
• One that would allow Iowans to sue local governments that prohibit the possession of guns in public buildings, such as county courthouses.
Multiple sheriffs, police chiefs and county attorneys interviewed for this story said they think much of the sweeping legislation would have little to no effect on their duties, and some pieces they supported.
But the so-called stand-your-ground provision and the notion of guns in courthouses and other public buildings give many law enforcement officials cause for concern.
Organizations representing the state’s peace officers, sheriffs and police all are registered as undecided on the bill. The organization representing the state’s county attorneys is registered in opposition to it.
Stand-your-ground laws have been debated passionately and nationally, particularly in the wake of a 2012 incident in Florida in which a black teen was shot to death and the shooter was acquitted of murder after claiming self-defense under the state’s stand-your-ground law.
Iowa law enforcement officials, particularly county attorneys, said their concern is that a stand-your-ground provision could make it difficult to prosecute shooting deaths.
“Unfortunately, at least in Davenport, we have the exchange of gun fire on a frequent basis, and unfortunately people get killed. And our fear is the unintended consequence of this bill is going to make those types of cases difficult to prosecute, even if an innocent bystander were to be killed,” Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said. “It builds in a defense, because both sides are going to be able to say they were standing their ground. ...
“Certainly, it’s going to be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who shot first. The law makes it difficult to prosecute. It builds in immunities.”
Woodbury County Sheriff David Drew, like many others who have raised questions about the bill, said Iowa does not need a stand-your-ground provision because current state law already permits the use of lethal force in self-defense of one’s home or vehicle. The proposal would expand that permission to anywhere.
“I think stand-your-ground is a bad law. I agree with the attorneys,” Drew said. “I think what you can have is two people that are really of a criminal mindset say, ‘I feared that guy,’ and he feared that guy, and we’re going back to the wild, Wild West.”
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Rep. Matt Windschitl is a Republican state legislator and gun shop owner from Missouri Valley and an advocate for reducing restrictions on gun ownership and use. He said stand-your-ground laws are designed to protect individuals from being prosecuted for acting in self-defense and such a protection should extend beyond the individuals’ home or vehicle.
Windschitl said the potential for more difficult prosecutions is outweighed by the expansion of protections for law-abiding gun owners.
“May a sheriff or prosecuting attorney have to reach a new standard to prosecute? Under those rare instances when someone may claim stand-your-ground, yes, that may happen,” Windschitl said. “But I think the burden that may put on that prosecuting attorney far outweighs the burden upon an Iowan to have to try and run away from a very dangerous situation that endangers their life or safety or the life or safety of another. We’re allowing Iowans the responsibility.”
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden and others said they also are worried a stand-your-ground law will lead to an increase in gun violence.
Florida’s monthly homicide rate increased nearly 25 percent after implementation of its stand-your-ground law, according to a 2016 study conducted by a University of Oxford social policy professor published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“I believe the stand your ground law would embolden some to unnecessarily resort to deadly force and increase the likelihood of physical violence,” Vander Sanden in an emailed statement.
Sheriffs and county attorneys said they also think any provision that makes it easier for individuals to bring guns into public places such as county courthouses is bad policy. They said emotions can run high in the courthouse and adding guns to that mix could be dangerous.
“That would be a huge step backward for public safety,” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said. “Some of the most contentious occurrences happen in the courthouse.”
Walton described prohibiting local governments from regulating firearms in courthouses as “lunacy” that puts the public and courthouse workers in danger.
“People are facing bad consequences in the courthouse. They may be prosecuted for crimes, their family members, relatives may be prosecuted for crimes, there may be juvenile situations, domestic abuse, divorces. It just goes on and on,” Walton said. “A courthouse is supposed to be a place where things are peaceably resolved. I think it’s a shame that the Legislature would put my staff and all the staff in the courthouse at risk with people with firearms. I don’t know why they would do that.”
The proposed legislation does not repeal any local ordinances that ban weapons in courthouses or other public buildings, and judges would retain authority to ban guns in the courtroom, Windschitl said.
“Judges still have domain over their kingdom,” Windschitl said. “They’re still the masters of their judicial branch.”
The bill does permit individuals to petition the court if he or she feels adversely affected by a weapons ban. Creating that opening concerned many of those county law enforcement officials.
“We have always been able to represent the courthouse as a safe place to victims and witnesses who are sometimes fearful about coming to testify in court,” Vander Sanden said. “If this legislation passed, it would subject counties across the state to lawsuits by those who believe they should have a right to bring firearms into county buildings.”