Christine Lehman-Engledow, of Moms Demand Action of Cedar Rapids, speaks at a Thursday news conference about her family’s experience with gun violence. A new coalition, Iowans for Responsible Gun Laws, has formed to encourage a “no” vote in November on a proposed pro-gun amendment to the Iowa Constitution. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — As federal lawmakers hash out details of bipartisan gun laws in the wake of recent mass shootings, a new coalition of gun safety advocates warn a pro-gun amendment to the Iowa Constitution will prohibit reasonable safety measures that Iowans support.
Republican state lawmakers passed legislation last year to add language to the state constitution that the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental and that any restraint on that right is invalid unless it meets the stringent demands of “strict scrutiny.”
The language, which will go before voters for approval this November, states: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
Republicans have argued for the measure for years, saying Iowa is one of only six states without protections in its constitution for the right to keep and bear arms.
Democrats and gun-safety advocates say Republicans are misleading Iowans when they say the amendment is equivalent to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The “strict scrutiny” language, they say, could prohibit reasonable safety measures that Iowans support, like firearm safety training, universal background checks and a license to carry a gun in public.
Polling conducted by RABA Research on behalf of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence shows more than 80 percent of Iowans support requiring background checks on all gun purchases, prohibiting felons from possessing firearms and requiring gun safety courses before the purchase of a handgun.
“The reckless gun amendment that Iowans will vote on in November has the strong possibility of weakening Iowa’s common-sense gun laws, placing Iowan’s safety in an even more precarious situation,” Connie Ryan, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and a member of the Iowans for Responsible Gun Laws coalition, said at a Thursday news conference at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
“Inserting gun rights with strict scrutiny into the (Iowa) Constitution would tip the balance of power, elevating access to guns above public health and safety,” Ryan said. “This is unacceptable and, quite frankly, it is dangerous.”
Art Roche, from Iowans for Gun Safety and a member of the new Iowans for Responsible Gun Laws coalition, speaks during a Thursday news conference encouraging a “no” vote in November on a proposed pro-gun amendment to the Iowa Constitution. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Strict scrutiny is the highest legal hurdle for legislation to clear. It would require any restrictions on gun rights to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest, University of Iowa law professor Todd Pettys said.
“It is the most demanding standard of review. It’s a highly skeptical standard of review … and one that often leads to statutes being struck down,” said Pettys, who published an article in the Iowa Law Review in 2020 about the National Rifle Association urging states to pass “strict scrutiny” amendments.
Todd Pettys, UI law professor
The Iowa Firearms Coalition, a gun-rights advocacy group, states on its website that “strict scrutiny” is “a near-impossible test for an infringement on a fundamental right. In addition, it would be a state-level backstop if federal courts lessen or continue to ignore Second Amendment protections, even if the amendment was repealed.”
Iowa courts still could have latitude to define the scope of the fundamental constitutional right to which the strict-scrutiny standard attaches, Pettys wrote in his law review.
Courts, he wrote, can reasonably conclude that the right protected by the amendment is narrow in scope, encompassing little or no more than what federal courts today protect under the Second Amendment. Therefore, it may merely prove to ensure that, at the state level, gun rights cannot be reduced below what the U.S. Supreme Court has already clearly established.
“There’s no question that it’s going to make it harder for legislators to enact any kind of restrictions on weapons,” he said. “It doesn’t make it impossible, but it makes it harder, by design.”
Currently, state and federal courts when looking at gun restrictions — whether background checks or other safety measures — review them fairly deferentially.
“And so a lot of those laws get upheld,” Petty said. “And the NRA has not liked that and said that courts need to be much more skeptical and need to be striking down more of these laws.”
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, who sponsored the gun amendment in the Iowa House, said it serves “as an important firewall” to protect Iowans’ “fundamental right to keep and bear arms” to protect themselves.
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison
The argument that the amendment would lead to courts overturning gun restrictions already on the books — including background checks and prohibitions on felons owning firearms — is “an utterly ridiculous argument, and I believe voters in Iowa will reject it,” Holt said.
“It’s a compelling government interest narrowly tailored,” Holt said. “We don’t want felons to have firearms. We don’t want violent people to have firearms. Reasonable firearm laws on the books are not going to be impacted and federal requirements for background checks aren’t going to be impacted.
“Their argument is to stop mentally ill people from killing people … (by taking away) an inanimate object that law-abiding citizens use to protect themselves and their families,” Holt said. “That’s not going to solve the problem.
“The problem we have is mental illness in this country. The problem we have is a loss of values that is resulting in these kinds of shootings and that is what we need to talk about.”
The Iowa Firearms Coalition added in a statement: “U.S. courts have long recognized that the right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental right that preexisted the Constitution and which is protected – not granted – by the Second Amendment. Although it is the ultimate guarantor of our other rights, Iowa is one of only six states that do not protect that vital right in their constitutions.
“The volunteers of Iowa Firearms Coalition have worked with legislators for over a decade to correct this oversight. We are confident that the voters of Iowa will exercise their common sense in November and adopt this amendment.”
If the amendment is approved by voters, Iowa would join three states that have passed “strict scrutiny” gun rights amendments — Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri — which are among the five states with the highest rates of gun deaths in the United States, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“This amendment will make it almost impossible to pass any sensible gun laws in the future in Iowa,” Christine Lehman-Engledow, from Moms Demand Action of Cedar Rapids, said at the Thursday news conference.
“It is trying to weaken gun-safety legislation without telling the people what they’re doing. People’s Second Amendment rights are already protected under the United States Constitution. When did an individual’s right to bear arms become more important than the safety of the people?”
“A ‘no’ vote is a vote for greater safety for yourself, your family and everyone in your community.”
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