CEDAR FALLS, Iowa | At Scheels sporting goods store here, customers peruse the section of firearms lined up in racks and numbering in the hundreds. In the center of the section are two metal-and-glass cases, locked and barred, that contain an ample selection of modern handguns.
Since the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and a major change in Iowa’s gun laws, this case has been of special note.
“Guns have been selling really well,” said Craig Michelson, who works in the store’s gun department. “Business has been good.”
As of Jan. 1, Iowa joined the ranks of states with “shall-issue” policies, which require officials to issue concealed-carry permits after a person meets specified objective criteria — typically, some combination of a fee, a background check, fingerprinting, and training.
Previously, Iowa had been one of the few remaining “may-issue” jurisdictions, meaning that government officials had final discretion on whether to grant requests for permits. “The first Monday after the law went into effect, half our calls were about it,” Mr. Michelson said.
Over the past 20 years, a combination of grass-roots movements and nationwide forces such as the National Rifle Association have largely got their way on concealed-carry laws. Since 1987, when the passing of a “shall-issue” law in Florida gained national attention, the number of “shall-issue” states has gone from nine to 37, not only on gun-rights grounds but also as an anti-crime measure.
“The more [permits] issued, the more criminals are going to be afraid to attack other people,” said John Lott, whose book “More Guns, Less Crime” recently printed its third edition and has been often cited by gun-rights advocates.
“People in urban areas will be able to more easily obtain permits, and those more likely to be victims of crime will be better equipped to protect themselves,” he said of Iowa’s “shall-issue” law.
It has been a tough decade for gun-control advocates. In D.C. v. Heller, a landmark 2008 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to own a firearm for self-defense.
And the trend of gun-control defeat continued with carrying laws, with only Washington D.C., Illinois and Wisconsin still outright barring concealed weapons.
At the other end, Arizona is one of three states — along with Alaska and Vermont — where concealed weapons can be carried without a permit, and that has caused both sides of the gun-control debate in Iowa to claim support from the facts of the Giffords shooting, in which a gunman killed six people including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Sheriff Mike Johnstone of Des Moines County noted that because a “shall-issue” law takes away discretion, officials have no way to deny a person such as suspect Jared Lee Loughner, who had some mental health issues and run-ins with his college but was never formally committed or had any criminal record.
“We don’t have an adequate database for mental health. Anyone can be under doctor’s care for depression or mental illness, and we’re not going to know about it. If they have no criminal record, and they have no record in the civil system with regard to mental illness, those individuals are going to be allowed to carry weapons. That concerns me,” said the sheriff, an outspoken critic of the law.
However, Dan Minard, owner/operator of the gun-training company Wolf Creek Training, noted that Mr. Loughner was subdued by Joseph Zamudio, an armed bystander who was legally carrying his own firearm.
“Point of fact, a concealed-carry weapons holder did help end that. He didn’t fire his gun, he didn’t draw his gun, but he helped subdue the guy. And that is underreported. Point of fact, a concealed-carry weapons holder did help save the day down there,” said Mr. Minard.
Before Jan. 1, Iowa sheriffs could issue permits at their discretion, in effect meaning there were 99 different policies in the state. The change now makes the permit policy uniform across Iowa.
“I don’t know that we’re going to see any dramatic impact one way or another in our communities,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson.
Black Hawk County was “essentially ‘shall-issue’ before. The minor increases we’ve had in brand-new applications are more based on the novelty, notoriety that the media has given to the weapons-permit process,” Sheriff Thompson said.
Across Iowa, proprietors of gun-instruction companies have reporting skyrocketing class enrollment. Classes, which fulfill a requirement for the Iowa-carry permit, are often held at such venues as hotels and community centers.
Mr. Minard recently hosted one such class in the office of a Waterloo lawn care business, using a PowerPoint presentation and Airsoft handgun replicas. The approximately six-hour course features a mixture of legal rules and practical tips about carrying a weapon for self-defense.
“I want the option,” said Brenda Vandersee, a housewife attending Mr. Minard’s course, of a concealed-weapons permit. “There are times, especially as a woman traveling with kids, where you’re more vulnerable.”
Mr. Minard said Iowa’s new law has created an exceptionally high demand for his services.
“I wouldnt be doing this one today, or the one next Tuesday, or the following Sunday,” he said recently.Still, he predicted, “You’re not going to see a great upsurge in full-time carry. I think you’re going to see a lot more hobbyist types doing it.”
Indeed, that is the essence of Sheriff Johnstone’s criticism of easy-carry laws — that people on the margins of accountability might become likelier to carry and that situations that might not have involved deadly firearms before will do so now. Before the new law, he said, he issued permits based on applicants demonstrable need. Now, hes required to issue permits to those who possess the qualifications.
“It’s putting weapons out on the street, and my deputies are very concerned about that,” he said.
“The idea of running across armed individuals on patrol stops and those kind of things are very concerning to them,” he said, noting that meetings have been held in his department to discuss handling the possible rise in armed citizens.
“It all depends on how the general public handles themselves,” he said. “I think thats going to be the issue.”