As Americans attempt to come to grips with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an emotionally charged debate has erupted with an intensity born of a desire to protect children. As a backdrop to this discussion, in what may prove a defining moment, Iowa law pertaining to carrying firearms changed significantly two years ago, causing weapons permits to proliferate.
According to Ross Loder, a bureau chief with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, approximately 39,000 Iowans were granted annual non-professional permits to carry a weapon in 2010. By December 2012 that number increased to nearly 139,000 permits, good for a five-year period. Based upon U.S. Census Bureau data, 6.4 percent of Iowans 21 and older now hold a permit to carry a weapon. Mirroring statewide trends, the Marshall County Sheriff's Office issued 1,847 permits during the same period.
Well known in Marshall County, Sheriff Ted Kamatchus was recently re-elected to a seventh term. The sheriff is a supporter of both the second amendment, and concealed carry rights. Addressing the weapons carry law, Kamatchus said his department requires that course instructors are properly certified. Additionally, his department performs annual background checks on all county permit holders to ensure they remain eligible.
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Pictured is a .38 special revolver, a weapon approved for concealed carry under Iowa law.
"The law was poorly written and has inconsistencies in areas like online instruction and renewals for military veterans," Kamatchus said. "Increasing the integrity of the permit requires consistent instruction and training."
Weapons permit applicants enroll in an approved firearms class, delivered by certified instructors. Many courses offer open book tests.
"An administrative law judge has ruled that online courses offered by properly certified instructors meet the requirement of Iowa law," Loder said.
Companies like the Concealed Carry Institute advertise a 65 minute course and a 20 question exam for $29.95. The course completion certificate, $50 fee and clean background check yields the weapons permit. An applicant is not required to prove competency on a firing range to obtain the permit, according to the Department of Public Safety. The permit qualifies the holder for a period of five years to carry - either openly or concealed - handguns, rifles, shotguns, switchblade knives and stun guns. Military veterans are not required to take the course and can substitute their discharge papers for the certificate of completion.
The weapons permit exempts holders from background checks for a period of five years when they purchase firearms. Permit holders have broad powers to carry loaded firearms in most locations including vehicles, grocery stores, malls, banks, theaters, hospitals and churches.
Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, said he was "in favor of reviewing the weapons carry law, taking into consideration the recommendations of Sheriff Kamatchus." Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, did not return a call for comment at press time.
Although the weapons carry permit does not require any range training or qualification, for jobs such as a security guard, the permit meets the requirements of Iowa law, allowing the holder to carry a weapon on the job, according to the Department of Public Safety.
As expected opinions on this law vary, an outspoken proponent of further expanding gun rights is the Iowa Firearms Coalition. An affiliated club with the National Rifle Association, board members of the coalition includes Pete Brownell, president of Brownells - a well known retailer of firearm accessories - and Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington.
The group advocates strengthening gun rights by amending the state constitution and lobbies against mandatory licensing and registration while advocating for "permit-less" carry of firearms. The group also tracks businesses which post "No Firearms Allowed" signs, and lists them as anti-gun on its website.
Local resident Bob Holmes, a Vietnam veteran, has followed the national firearms discussion with interest, and has firm opinions on Iowa's weapon carry law.
"I certainly don't want to be shot by a criminal, nor for that matter by a poorly trained but well intentioned amateur," Holmes said. "Neither outcome is appealing."
With a long history of using firearms for self-defense, hunting and target shooting, firearms are deeply rooted in American culture. During this period of national reflection as Americans seek answers to curb gun violence, Iowa's weapons carry law, and the proliferation of permits is unlikely to escape the debate.