Despite the best efforts of anti-gunners and even some law enforcement officers, the Second Amendment is alive and well in Iowa. Iowa is a very gun friendly state in general – especially since the April 13 signing of House File 517, which granted even greater freedom to gun owners. The Second Amendment was further bolstered later that week by the Supreme Court of Iowa after they overturned a conviction for making a false statement on a permit to acquire a weapon.
In 2015, Iowa resident James Downy filed his application for a permit to buy a gun with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. He claimed he was not a felon. The background check showed that he had a felony – third offense Operating While Intoxicated (OWI). The sheriff’s department denied the application and charged Mr. Downy with a class “D” felony and sentenced him to five years in prison, which the court suspended pending two and a half years of probation. Mr. Downy appealed his conviction, which was upheld by the appeal court but recently reversed by the Iowa Supreme Court. What fault did the highest court of the state find with the conviction? The Des Moines Register alleges that Mr. Downy won his freedom over a misplaced modifier. The actual legislation supporting the criminal charge states:
The application shall require only the full name of the applicant, the driver’s license or nonoperator’s identification card number of the applicant, the residence of the applicant, and the date and place of birth of the applicant.
The application includes exactly the required information above the signature area that releases the background check and confirms that all above information is accurate. Both the court and The Des Moines Register agree that due to the placement of the word only in the legislation, any information not included in that same sentence doesn’t belong in the application and is not subject to the class “D” felony for falsifying the application.
The Des Moines Register offers the opinion that this technicality is all that saved Mr. Downy and that it is a sign that the legislation is illogical. However, the Iowa Supreme Court supports the use of only and even goes so far as to compare the questions on the application’s second page to asking for irrelevant information such as the color of the applicant’s vehicle. They felt that the items covered in the current legislation are sufficient and even called the idea that further questions could result in felony convictions absurd.
Before addressing the issue of word usage, the Court opened its analysis section by citing the U.S. Supreme Court cases that support the Second Amendment and then added that the state legislature expanded the rights of gun owners beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court recognized – granting more rights to Iowans. Only after asserting that the rights of the individual are paramount did the Court make its point about word usage. In addition to the contextual meaning of only, the court explains that the legislation was amended in 2010 so that “require only” replaced the original text of “states.” The court maintained that by using the wording “requires only,” the legislature intended to prohibit the asking of further information.
While this was enough to overturn the conviction of Mr. Downy, it doesn’t address the question of whether or not felons should be allowed to possess firearms. The state legislation does call for a mandatory background check, but it doesn’t explicitly require it to be clean. This omission is not unusual, as states often leave out legislation that is already covered by federal law – like the federal law prohibiting felons from owning firearms.
The wording of the Second Amendment is simple and leaves little room for reinterpretation. As Justice Antonin Scalia made clear when presenting the U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the right to keep and bear arms is not granted by the Constitution, but is recognized by it as a preexisting right of the people that applies to the people as individuals rather than only active militia members. The law that prohibited all felons from owning any firearms was the Gun Control Act of 1968, which Congress passed after the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Only one of the three assassins had prior criminal convictions, and he had not even completed his prison sentence. The only felon required to bring about a total firearm ban against felons was a violent repeat offender who had escaped from prison!
All individuals – regardless of class – have the natural right to defend themselves. This opinion is the very position Justice Scalia took in the above-referenced case, yet after delivering one of the greatest defenses of the Second Amendment, he proceeded in the same decision to contradict himself with the following:
Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
Contrary to this statement, Justice Scalia spent many pages, including an exhausting – if not exhaustive – list of historical references, describing how the right to keep and bear arms is a natural right for all individuals that preexists constitutional law. Then, in a single – though longwinded – sentence, he upheld a gun control act not supported by the original language of the Constitution as an aside to the actual case with no supporting evidence.
The State of Iowa has taken bold steps to advance the cause of the Second Amendment, and according to The Des Moines Register, there is more to come. With any luck, the new federal government under the Trump administration and the Supreme Court will adopt the Iowa state motto: “‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” Perhaps the Gun Control Act of 1968 and others will be revisited with a closer eye to the framers’ clear language and intent.