- - Thursday, March 1, 2012

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Despite increasingly permissive gun laws, Iowa has long been one of only six states without a right to bear arms in its constitution.

Those days may be numbered, as the Iowa House has passed a bill to explicitly protect gun rights in the state constitution despite vigorous Democratic objections that included a mass walkout from the Statehouse.

Democrats in the Iowa House forcefully made their objections known with Wednesday’s walkout, claiming they were protesting the bill being brought to the floor without advance notice. They also had attacked earlier versions of the bill as an extremist bid to strike down all gun laws.

At a press conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy characterized the bills as eliminating “all gun laws, gone, not through legislation, but through altering the Iowa Constitution.”

“We left in protest so that there could be some openness and transparency and some sunlight drawn on what this issue is: very, very extreme,” he said.

Republican leaders dispute that and charge that the walkout was not about the issues but about making a scene — it could not have paralyzed the legislature as a Democratic walkout in neighboring Wisconsin over an anti-union bill did.

The Republicans, who have a 60-40 majority in the state House, could have continued without their Democratic counterparts, because, unlike the quorum rules in some state legislative bodies, Iowa’s House can do business as long as half the lawmakers are present. The chamber’s Democrats returned Wednesday night and the bill passed on a 61-37 vote.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, Hiawatha Republican, had declined to continue the debate until the Democrats had returned so as not to inflame an already sensitive issue, but Thursday he criticized the Democrats for walking out.

“Iowans send us here to go to work. Instead of standing here and debating, doing what Iowans pay and expect us to do, they left the capitol,” Mr. Paulsen said.

Gun-rights advocates have made gains in Iowa over the past few years. The previous governor signed into law a bill loosening restrictions on who could get a concealed weapons permit and the requirements for obtaining one.

The bill was originally introduced in late January, where it has seen changes and some contentious debate ever since. The language, which guarantees individuals “the right of an individual to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer and use arms,” has been criticized for its broad scope, which could potentially challenge an array of firearms laws.

At one point, the bill had been altered to use the same language as the federal Second Amendment, but the version the House passed was nearly identical to the initial bill.

In addition, the House passed a Stand Your Ground bill, which explicitly lets Iowans use “deadly force” against a person committing a felony, wherever they may be. Critics charge that the law will encourage gun use, with Mr. McCarthy predicting that these bills, if enacted, would make Iowa like the “Wild, Wild West.”

Rep. Matt Windschitl, a Republican who has been one of the driving forces behind pro-gun laws in the Iowa House, later retorted that Iowans should have the chance to “defend themselves without the fear of frivolous prosecution.”

Although the bills have passed the House, the Senate has a Democratic majority and is considered unlikely to pass them as is. To become part of the Iowa Constitution, the amendment would need to pass again in the next legislative session, and then win a majority of the popular vote at the next major election, which likely would mean in 2014.