Last week the Iowa House passed – on pretty much party lines – House File 756, which makes several changes to Iowa’s gun laws.

Among many other things, HF756 gets rid of mandatory background checks for private handgun sales and the requirement that Iowans obtain a “permit to carry” from their local sheriff’s office in order to legally carry a loaded handgun in public.

These two changes to current law will result in way fewer background checks and thus more guns in the hands of people who are legally barred from possessing guns, and also more guns in the hands of people who have zero knowledge about Iowa’s laws governing legal justification – which is why I voted no on the bill.

Under current law, a private person selling a handgun must require the buyer to either produce a valid permit to carry/permit to acquire (which you can’t get without passing a background check) or to obtain a background check from a federally licensed firearm dealer; a person who sells a gun to a buyer without adequate proof of eligibility risks state and federal criminal charges.

Once HF756 is enacted, a private gun seller will no longer have an affirmative duty to obtain proof of eligibility from a prospective gun buyer – in fact, the seller isn’t even required to ask the buyer’s name. Selling a gun to a felon remains a crime, but only if the State can prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the seller “knew or reasonably should have known” that the buyer was legally barred from possessing a firearm ... if the seller doesn’t ask and the buyer doesn’t tell, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get a conviction.

No doubt legitimate private gun sellers will continue to do their due diligence, but once HF756 is enacted, unscrupulous private gun sellers will be able to sell handguns to people who shouldn’t have them – to felons and domestic abusers and people under a mental health commitment and Iowans who honestly don’t realize they’re barred from legally possessing a gun – with impunity, i.e. with little if any risk of criminal consequences.

HF756 also eliminates the requirement that (most) Iowans obtain a permit before carrying a loaded handgun in public. Obtaining a permit to carry is not burdensome – you fill out a short application at your local sheriff’s office, provide ID and proof of completion of a gun safety class, and pay a $50 fee; a deputy sheriff then conducts an extensive background check to determine if you have any disqualifying criminal convictions or other firearm prohibitors and, assuming you don’t, you get your permit to carry, valid for five years.

But here’s why that extensive background check is crucial: sometimes it reveals that the applicant does have a disqualifying criminal conviction or other firearm prohibitor and is thus legally barred from possessing a firearm. The denied applicants are always shocked and confused when they’re informed of this fact, because they sincerely believed that they could legally possess a firearm (or else they wouldn’t have bothered applying, right?). Their confusion is understandable – the federal and state laws that regulate who can and who cannot legally possess a firearm are complicated and confusing and counterintuitive, and there are many ways you can lose your firearm rights – some of them obvious, some of them not so much.

A decades old simple misdemeanor conviction can do it, and the fact that the defendant was never informed that the conviction triggered a lifetime firearm disability is irrelevant. A conviction for a serious or aggravated misdemeanor assault triggers a three-year prohibition on carrying a handgun in public – many attorneys aren’t aware of this fact, and so neither are their clients. A juvenile or adult mental health or substance abuse commitment triggers a lifetime (kind of) firearm ban, of which the subject of the commitment is often unaware.

Sometimes I’m able to assist Iowans who have had their application for a permit denied in obtaining a court order that removes their firearm disability; sometimes that’s not possible. The point is, without the mandatory background check that is part of our current permitting process, none of these people would have become aware that they were barred from carrying a firearm in public.

HF756 gets rid of that mandatory background check and makes “permitless carry” legal in Iowa – as long as you can legally carry a handgun in public, you can do so without a permit. Which would be fine if all Iowans who cannot legally carry a loaded handgun in public were aware of that fact, but as discussed above, this definitely isn’t the case.

Under permitless carry, all of the Iowans who sincerely but mistakenly believe that they can legally carry will do so, and will be committing a felony every time they pick up their handgun (that they were able to purchase from a private seller because of no more mandatory backgrounds checks for private gun sales) and walk out their front door. If they ever have to discharge their handgun in public, or get stopped for speeding with their handgun sitting on the passenger seat, they’re looking at state or federal prison time – and the fact that they sincerely believed they could legally possess a firearm will be irrelevant.

Finally: in addition to the (common sense) background check requirement, our current permitting process requires Iowans to complete a short (less than four hours long) gun safety class.

I’ve taken two of these classes; both instructors spent a lot of time discussing Iowa’s gun safety laws and our laws regarding legal justification, a.k.a. self defense, a.k.a. when it’s OK for a private citizen to shoot someone. These laws are (surprise) complicated, and there’s a lot of misinformation floating around as to when it is/isn’t legally justified to “stand your ground,” and thus it’s important that anyone who is armed in public have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what the law actually says.

Currently, that’s the case – every single Iowan who is (legally) carrying a loaded handgun has had at least some education, from a qualified instructor, about Iowa’s self-defense laws. Once House File 756 is enacted and completion of a gun safety class is no longer required, many Iowans carrying loaded handguns will know nothing about gun safety and/or when it’s legal to shoot someone, and this will make a lot of the people carrying loaded handguns more dangerous than they would be under current law, both to themselves and to anyone with whom they come into contact – including law enforcement officers.

Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, represents District 98 in the Iowa House of Representatives.

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