Kurt Liske still can’t quite believe that it finally happened.
“Honestly, I don’t know if it’s entirely sunk in yet,” Liske admitted to VICE News, sounding dazed. “It’s monumental.”
He’s talking about Iowa House File 517, a landmark gun rights bill signed into law by Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday. It is the single biggest expansion of gun rights in Iowa’s history, said Liske, who is the vice president of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, an NRA-affiliated group that advocated for the bill. But while Liske believes the bill follows other states’ lead in advancing firearm rights, critics worry that many of its provisions will spread gun violence.
Particularly controversial are the bill’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” provisions. Not only can law-abiding Iowans who believe their lives are at risk now legally use “reasonable force, including deadly force” — a hallmark of “Stand Your Ground” legislation — they are also immune to civil liability if they can justify needing to kill an “aggressor.”
“No matter what your position on this bill, none of us wants to see the kind of homicide rate increase here that other states have seen after enacting Stand Your Ground laws,” said Amber Gustafson, leader of the Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, in a statement. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was linked to a roughly 30 percent increase in the state’s firearm-related homicide rate, researchers have found.
Half of all states have laws with Stand Your Ground elements, but the effort to pass them has slowed in recent years — Iowa is only the second state to enact such a law since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, according to Moms Demand Action.
Stand Your Ground isn’t the only portion of the law that concerns critics. One of its other controversial components essentially strips local governments’ ability to enact their own gun rules, allowing Iowans to sue their city and county governments if they enact gun-free zones that residents believe violate their Second Amendment rights.
The law also lets people with concealed-carry permits carry guns into the state capitol, legalizes short-barrel shotguns and rifles, makes firearm permit holders’ personal information confidential, and raises the bar for prosecutors seeking to tack on weapons charges for certain felonies.
“Honestly, I feel comfortable saying that there will never be another Second Amendment bill in Iowa that will ever contain so much,” Liske said. Though the Iowa Firearms Coalition had worked for years to separately pass some of the law’s provisions, he said, the November elections led Republicans to take control of both the Iowa House and Senate — and so House File 517 passed.
Liske is particularly proud of a new provision that will permit children to use firearms under the supervision of adults 21 and older. He says he watched two now-preteen girls spend years lobbying for that change, and one had “tears streaming down her eyes” as she watched Branstad sign the bill.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, had a different take.
“Each component of the bill is dangerous; in combination, it sets the stage for significant increases in gun violence,” he wrote in a March editorial, adding, “There is no credible research that indicates deregulation of public carrying of concealed firearms reduces violent crime or curtails mass shootings. The most recent and most rigorous research shows that such policies, if anything, lead to more assaults committed with firearms.”
Originally, the bill also allowed a version of “constitutional” or permitless carry, which refers to the ability to carry a firearm without government registration or training. Liske said lawmakers had “questions” about the provision and it was eventually amended out, which Gustafson applauded.
But that doesn’t mean that the Iowa Firearms Coalition won’t push for that law in the future, Liske said, and it doesn’t diminish his pride. “For Iowa to do this on such a large scale is a real feather in our caps,” Liske said.