A proposed gun-rights amendment currently working its way through the Iowa Legislature is far more dangerous than it might seem. While the amendment would give Iowa its own Second Amendment, it would not put Iowa in line with 44 other states, as some have claimed. The radical amendment language would make Iowa one of only four states to pass a “strict scrutiny” provision that gives criminal offenders and others intent on doing harm a tool to undermine the basic gun safety regulations that keep Iowans safe.
Strict scrutiny is the most demanding legal standard applied in constitutional cases. It requires judges to assume that a challenged policy is unconstitutional until the state proves otherwise. This legislation provides no exceptions, not even for laws prohibiting gun possession by violent offenders or for criminal laws that enhance sentences for crimes when a firearm is used.
If SJR 18/HJR 13 is adopted, strict scrutiny would be mandatory in all gun cases. In every case involving firearms, Iowa judges would start from the assumption that a gun regulation or sentencing enhancement violates the Constitution. They would have to make this assumption in challenges involving everything from Iowa’s handgun licensing and background check laws, to its restrictions on unauthorized concealed carry in K-12 schools, and even to laws restricting gun possession by those convicted of felonies and domestic violence.
Except for Louisiana, Missouri, and Alabama, no other state mandates the use of strict scrutiny this broadly. These states are not examples Iowa wants to follow. Alabama’s gun death rate is the second highest among all states, Louisiana’s is the third highest and Missouri’s is the seventh highest. Iowa has the 12th-lowest gun death rate in the nation.
Should Iowa adopt strict scrutiny in all gun cases, it would allow any number of criminal defendants to challenge convictions for unlawful gun possession, as has happened in other states with this policy. For example, judges in Missouri and Louisiana struck down laws barring felons from owning guns, and this was only overturned after the cases went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse: both states have seen repeated challenges involving felons who tried to use strict scrutiny to avoid convictions.
Supporters have shouted the merits of this amendment from the rooftops: Iowa’s only one of a few states without it, it doesn’t affect Iowa’s current gun laws, it’s about individual freedom, etc. However, the small, small number of states that have adopted strict scrutiny have shown us time and time again that this is far less innocuous than Republicans in Des Moines would have us believe. It’s expensive and throws an unnecessary monkey wrench into legal proceedings. And if we want to talk about personal freedom, I believe that the freedom to live uninhibited by the fear and violence of mass shootings far outweighs the freedom to own and carry any weapon you wish.
The actions taken by a majority of lawmakers in this state have started the ball rolling toward fundamentally less-safe communities. I can only hope that they realize the impact of their decisions before this measure progresses any further.
Tim Bottaro is a Sioux City attorney.
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