One part of Iowa’s new comprehensive gun rights law that went into effect in July may end up in court. Under the new statute, a gunowner can sue any local government that tries to keep firearms out of public buildings.
Dozens of counties with courthouse weapons bans are potential targets.
Jackson County Chief Deputy Steve Schroeder says they lived through a nightmare a few years back at their courthouse in Maquoketa.
“We had a gentleman bring a firearm into the courthouse, into a board meeting,” Schroeder said. “He was upset and he pulled a firearm from his briefcase.”
The shooter, a former city manager upset about his tax bill, fired at the county assessor, was wrestled to the ground by a supervisor, and ended up fatally shooting himself.
Jackson County had a courthouse weapons ban at the time. But like most smaller courthouses in the state, it doesn’t include full-on security complete with metal detectors.
Gun rights advocates complain that in those counties, gunowners who obey the ban can’t defend themselves and others when, for example, a disgruntled taxpayer gets in armed.
That’s what Rep. Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley) was trying to fix with this year’s gun rights law.
He describes a gunowner walking into a courthouse protected only by a sign saying weapons are not allowed.
“The honest law-abiding citizen would abide by the law and would disarm themselves, while someone who is not law-abiding can do harm and wreak havoc,” Windschitl said.
Windschitl explains that a 1990 Iowa law prevents local governments from passing gun restrictions that are tougher than state law. However, under subsequent advice from the attorney general, most Iowa counties passed courthouse weapons bans that some gunowners object to.
Windschitl says there wasn’t enough support in the legislature to bring things back closer to that 1990 law, so they agreed instead to let gunowners sue if they believe they are “adversely affected” by the weapons bans.
In response, to date, many counties are keeping their courthouse weapons restrictions and taking the risk
of a lawsuit.
“My reading of that law is there's no monetary amount that someone could be awarded,” said Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew.
In keeping his ban, Drew is relying on a recent Iowa Supreme Court order banning weapons in all courthouses statewide. But he’s also defying his own county government.
Woodbury is one of two counties where supervisors have voted to lift their courthouse weapons bans so they can’t be sued.
Board chairman Matthew Ung is unhappy that the sheriff is ignoring the board’s policy.
He says he may cut the sheriff’s funding if he doesn’t comply.
“Frankly because we already had existing courthouse security and he has the guns our only recourse is to defund,” Ung said.
Ung said there’s a wide expectation in Woodbury County that someone will claim an adverse effect and sue.
“When we discussed what the county was going to do there was unanimous agreement between the county attorney, the sheriff, supervisors, and the judicial branch that there is going to be a lawsuit in some county in Iowa,” Ung said.
The head of the Iowa County Attorneys Association describes a potential suit.
“An individual may attempt to go into a courthouse and they’re detected and told to remove the weapon, they could initiative some type of suit for declaratory relief for damages,” said Executive Director Tom Ferguson. “So the question becomes, what’s adversely affected.”
A board member with the gun rights group the Iowa Firearms Coalition says he is not aware of anyone planning to sue.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me if someone wanted to do that,” said Richard Rogers. “I would hope that anyone wanting to do that would coordinate with the NRA or the Iowa Firearms Coalition before doing so to make sure we have a good case.”
Back in Jackson County, on the advice of the county attorney, Steve Schroeder says it’s business as usual with their weapons ban.
“If you are seen in the courthouse with a weapon and you have a permit to carry you are going to be asked to leave,” Schroeder said. “If you don't comply with our request then you'll be placed under arrest for trespassing and transported over to the detention center and booked into jail.”
Put that way, that might look like “adversely affected” to an unhappy gunowner.