Some Iowa sheriffs say an increase in the number of non-professional permits to carry handguns, coupled with new or recent gun laws in the state, have increased safety risks in their counties.
They point to provisions in the new Iowa Omnibus Gun Law, adopted this year, that decreases the punishment for carrying a firearm while intoxicated and increased the ability to use a stand-your-ground defense when firing a gun at someone else.
That law followed one in 2011 that changed a sheriff’s right to issue non-professional permits to carry from “may issue” to “shall issue,” taking away much of the discretion sheriffs had when issuing non-professional permits to carry.
Several sheriffs IowaWatch interviewed also expressed concern about the lack of training required to receive a permit.
“There are people out there that I know I am issuing permits to, that the law forces me to, that shouldn’t have a weapon,” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said.
Since the 2011 law took effect, the number of non-professional permits to carry issued has grown exponentially. From just 2010 to 2011, 29 Iowa counties saw more than a 380 percent increase in permits issued. The overall state increase was 158 percent.
In 2016, sheriff’s offices in Iowa’s 99 counties issued 108,221 non-professional permits to carry a handgun.
No state data exists that details the number of individuals with permits to carry with previous criminal records, nor the number of permits that have been revoked in a given year, because the state does not require keeping those records.
However, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he issued 203 permits to people with criminal records in 2016. Pulkrabek, who is president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association this year, said he has kept of personal tally of the number of permits he has issued to individuals with criminal records whom he said he most likely would have denied before 2011.
He said his list covers serious misdemeanors, such as theft, but not traffic, disorderly conduct or public intoxication citations.
People with criminal records that do not include felony convictions may get a permit to carry. Felons are barred from possessing a gun in Iowa.
In Black Hawk County, Sheriff Tony Thompson said he has issued permits to carry to individuals who later committed crimes, such as driving while intoxicated, dealing drugs while carrying their firearm, and displaying their gun in a road rage incident.
“That permit does not mean: one, they are a good person; two, they are trained; and three, are aware of the law,” Thompson said.
State Sen. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said sheriffs continually have expressed discontent over not having the discretion they once had. As floor manager of Iowa’s 2017 gun-related bill, HF 517, which was passed into law and went into effect July 1, 2017, Windschitl said he works with the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association often to address issues.
However, he said, changing the law to “shall issue” in 2011 was necessary in order to eliminate any inequities across the state.
“Your rights should not be limited by someone’s individual interpretation of whether you are a good person or a bad person,” Windschitl said.
Before the law changed in 2011, sheriffs could deny permits for reasons beyond past criminal activity or mental health issues.
Gardner, who issued 5,298 permits in Linn County during the boom year in 2011 after issuing 1,433 in 2010, said he supports the “shall issue” provision in Iowa’s law. Before the law, he said, the equivalent of 99 different laws existed because sheriffs in each county could set their own criteria for issuing permits.
However, “I know there are people that have applied for carry permits whose family has contacted us saying they shouldn’t be carrying weapons because they have mental health issues,” Gardner said. “But because they haven’t gone to court, I have to issue a permit.”
Gardner issued 8,351 permits in 2016, the last year for which full data are available.
Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, who issued 1,956 permits in 2011 after issuing 390 in 2010, said he has had similar experiences.
Despite the small number of permits issued in 2010, Fitzgerald said he denied few permits before 2011. Like other sheriffs, he cited news coverage of the law change and culture of Iowa as the reason for the uptick in 2011. Iowans, he said, understood the law and their gun rights better because of the coverage.
Reasons Fitzgerald would have denied a permit, he said, included a known history of mental health issues, family and/or spousal abuse and drug or alcohol addiction. “Other than that I don’t care if people have guns or what kind of guns they have,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald cited one permit request, in which a background check showed the person had suicidal tendencies. While Iowa law states that a person who has been involuntarily hospitalized can be denied a permit to carry, simply being told by other community members or family members of the person applying for the permit does not meet the threshold for denial.
He said he is not aware of the person committing suicide or hurting anyone else since receiving the permit.
In Dubuque County, Sheriff Joseph Kennedy said, “Every once in a while we get a permit request from a known gang member, but their level of criminality has not reached the point to where they cannot get a permit.”
Wapello County Sheriff Mark Miller, who took office in 2012, said his county historically only would issue permits before 2011 to people like business owners who could prove a need to protect items with monetary value.
In 2011 Wapello County issued 1,473 permits to carry, compared to 135 in 2010. The county issued 1,632 in 2016. While Miller said there were concerns about the increase of citizens carrying for personal protection, his department hasn’t experienced any problems as a result.
“Other than the increased workload, we haven’t seen any bad side to this,” he said, referring to the work of processing more permits. “There hasn’t been an influx of gun-related calls or anything like that.”
Dan Belleau, a sales associate at G & G Retailers of Davenport, which sells firearms, said he favors Iowa’s gun law changes. He said stricter gun laws do not make for a safer society.
He said he didn’t have to worry in his hometown of Buffalo, Iowa, about gun violence or robberies, despite a high prevalence of guns.
“Everybody has a gun, multiple guns. People leave their doors unlocked. I can go over to my neighbors’ house while they’re not home, get some sugar or borrow a pop or something and leave a note, and they don’t give a shit,” Belleau, 34, said.
“People say, ‘Well if you ban guns, then nobody has any guns, then you can’t get shot,’ he said. “Well you can’t carry a gun in Chicago, and that’s where the most shootings happen.”
“Why?” Belleau asked. “It’s a mentality thing.”
REQUIRED TRAINING CONCERNS
Mahaska County Sheriff Russell Van Renterghem said he initially had concerns with the lack of power sheriffs had over issuing permits, but also said he no longer worries.
“We were concerned and we actually had a couple of residents in town at that time, and I can remember them telling us as soon as they get their permit to carry, they’re gonna’ strap a gun on their side and walk down the aisles at Hy-Vee or Walmart,” Van Renterghem said. “But that didn’t happen. We don’t have people flaunting their guns now. Our concerns weren’t warranted.”
Another law change, made in 2011, eliminated a sheriff’s right to require certain types of firearms training in order to be granted a permit. Previously, many sheriffs, like Black Hawk County’s Thompson, required a proficiency qualification to be met.
Operating as a “shall-issue” sheriff since his election in 2009, Thompson said his only requirements for receiving a permit were a face-to-face interview and a training course, offered by his department in conjunction with the community college, that required individuals to demonstrate that they could load and fire a handgun correctly. The course also informed individuals on Iowa’s gun laws.
“It was a bad move negating training and watering down training to the degree that there really was no value in it,” Thompson said.
Since 2011, Thompson said the number of suspensions and revocations of permits he has issued in Black Hawk County has increased, with a total of 95 as of the end of 2016. “Some of these are happening due to ignorance of the laws, and of training,” he said.
Delaware County Sheriff John LeClere, who issued 558 permits in 2011 after issuing only 110 in 2010, said he supports more required training. He said the state’s current training requirement for permits does not guarantee a person has any proficiency with a firearm.
“As a law enforcement officer, we’re required to demonstrate proficiency with a firearm before we can carry it on duty,” LeClere said. “I would hate to see someone who has never fired a weapon take a training course that doesn’t require firing a weapon and go out and not understand what will happen when they shoot.”
Taking an online training course is an option but Kim Smithe, owner of the Davenport gun shop G & G Retailers, said those courses are not sufficient.
“These are people that have never even held a handgun before,” she said.
“I’ve had customers come in here that have taken an online (course) and gotten their permit and they pick that handgun up, with their finger on the trigger, looking down the barrel. Both of those are the first things you learn that are big no-no’s, you don’t do either one of those. So those online courses are not teaching anyone anything,” Smithe, 51, said.
“I do believe in the right to carry a firearm but I do think there needs to be stricter regulations,” Smithe said, who has had her permit to carry since 1988. “I think you need to be able to prove that you can handle that firearm and you have that knowledge, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be able to carry, period.”
RELAXING INTOXICATION PUNISHMENT
One change made by Iowa’s Omnibus Gun Law was decreasing the severity of the punishment for carrying a firearm while intoxicated. Previously, this crime was considered an aggravated misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. Since July 1, the crime has been considered a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.
Additionally, carrying while intoxicated is no longer always terms for revocation of a permit. Other factors must be present, such as previous alcohol related offenses that could indicate an alcohol addiction, which is grounds for revocation.
“The simplest explanation is that under the prior law, intoxicated carrying was clear grounds for suspension upon arrest, and clear grounds for revocation upon conviction,” said Ross Loder, program services bureau chief at the Iowa Department of Public Safety. “But under the new law it becomes more ‘situational’ as there may or may not be grounds for suspension or revocation, depending on the existence or non-existence of other factors.”
Thompson said, “I’m not sure what the driving force was behind watering that down.”
He said he’s baffled that state legislators recognize the dangers of operating a vehicle or heavy machinery while intoxicated, but not while carrying a firearm.
“We know alcohol consumption blurs judgment,” he said. “We’re looking for people in the state that can carry firearms responsibly, that don’t infringe on the rights of other citizens.”
In Johnson County, Pulkrabek said his staff now stamp, “not valid while intoxicated” on all new permits issued.
STAND YOUR GROUND
Before the Ominbus Gun Law, Iowa’s stand-your-ground law stated that individuals who felt threatened in a public space, outside of their home or place of employment, were required to retreat if possible before defending themselves.
Now, the law allows individuals who feel threatened to lawfully shoot. This change, Pulkrabek said, wasn’t necessary.
“From what I can tell, Iowa already gave a person the ability to defend themselves,” he said. “In my opinion, this gives someone the right to shoot first and ask questions later. And if they kill the individual, you only have one side of the story.”
Pulkrabek related his argument to his department’s inability to use discretion when issuing permits to carry: “I find it alarming, especially considering now that there are people getting permits with lengthy criminal records, even sex offenders.”
Kennedy, of Dubuque County, said, “It’s always a concern when you are giving people more freedom to make deadly force decisions, especially when those people are not familiar with what constitutes a deadly force decision.”
“They don’t have to be correct in that estimation of the danger they are facing,” he said, adding, “I think it’s going to make it more difficult for us, especially when you have an offender and a victim, and the victim is deceased.”
But Belleau, the Davenport gun store sales associate, said he hopes many of the break-ins and other crime existing now will stop with stand-your-ground. “I hope more criminals realize that people are more willing to use them,” Belleau said, referring to firearms.
“People are kind of scared to defend themselves,” Belleau said when talking about Iowa’s previous stand-your-ground-law. “Like, yeah, I don’t want to be attacked. But I also don’t want to go to prison for being attacked. You know, if someone breaks into your house, they’re not there to bake you a cake.”
While the law states that individuals do not have to correctly estimate danger when defending themselves, Windschitl said the force used has to be determined as reasonable.
“You might misjudge the situation,” he said. “But if someone else in the exact same situation could also misjudge the situation and use the same force — that is reasonable force.”
While he said he understands sheriffs’ concerns, Windschitl said Iowa’s previous stand-your-ground law was not adequate. In particular, he said placing the burden of proof on the individual who claimed self-defense was wrong.
“That shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “We have an inherent right to life and part of that is defending that life. You shouldn’t have to prove that you were defending yourself.”
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.