DES MOINES - Matt Windschitl turned a half-swivel in his chair and stuck his right hand out, palm up, stopping National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Rager from walking out the door.
Windschitl, 28, a member of the House Republican leadership team from Missouri Valley, had just watched his "stand your ground" bill sail through a legislative committee.
"This," Windschitl said as Rager shook his hand, "is just the start."
The bill would allow Iowans to respond with deadly force if they feel threatened and would protect them from liability in some cases.
This session, Windschitl also has proposed legislation that makes it a crime for local governments to ban firearms from public buildings such as a city hall or a county courthouse, lifts the firearm prohibition on the Iowa State Fairgrounds and adds wording to the Iowa Constitution that makes it harder to place restrictions on firearm ownership, transportation and use.
Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the House, but in the Senate, Democrats rule 26-24. Key senators say that the firearm legislation being pushed now in the House won't ever make it to a vote in committee in the Senate.
"Our position is we are not doing any of those bills. We don't think they're good policy," said Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Senate Democrats have a consistent, unrelenting focus on jobs, the economy, education and training, and that's where we're focused on, and we're not going to get into a gun-rights sideshow."
But legislation can be moved to the floor without going through the committee if a majority of senators votes to do so. That's where Windschitl sees an opening.
Gun issues play reasonably well across party lines in Iowa. Take, for example, the "shall issue" bill that took discretion away from county sheriffs in issuing gun permits in 2010. The House went 81-16 and the Senate 44-4 in favor, and they both had Democratic majorities at the time.
Plus, it's an election year. It's a special one at that, because of census redistricting every legislator will have at least some new constituents to which they may want to show their pro-Second Amendment bona fides.
"We've had some conversations with some pro-Second Amendment Democrats," Windschitl said. "The Judiciary Committee is one committee."
Guns at the courthouse
The legislation that has caught a lot of attention this session is the pre-emption bill. It says that the state has the sole authority to regulate firearms, so ordinances by cities, counties and other political subdivisions are illegal.
Critics say pre-emption is an overreach by the state. They say public safety and weapons bans are a local control issue, but proponents say a local ordinance doesn't trump the Constitution.
"I agree with people's rights to bear arms with certain restrictions to maintain the safety of our public," said Iowa City Mayor Pro Tempore Susan Mims, who was in Des Moines last week for a presentation on the economic impact of the state's largest cities.
Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin said the City Council hasn't taken a position on the legislation.
"Our essential position is that law-abiding citizens are law-abiding citizens," he said. "They can carry guns into city buildings."
Added 7th Ward Alderman Barney Barnhill, "We have a couple of elected officials who carry."
Waterloo passed a ban on weapons in city buildings after concealed carry passed, Mayor Buck Clark said. He said there haven't been any problems with weapons being brought places where they are banned, but, he noted, most people can't get into the Capitol with a firearm.
"How are we going to be able to control our own destiny in these buildings?" he said. "In this building behind us (the Capitol), are they going to disallow that? You can't carry a gun in there. There's terrible irony there."
Windschitl thinks pre-emption should include all state buildings.
"We allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights, we should allow them to exercise their Second Amendment rights," he said. "I have legislation to lift the administrative rule that prohibits firearms on state grounds, but I haven't filed it yet ... Sometimes we have to take this process in steps."
A powerful ally?
Craig Robinson, editor of the influential Iowa Republican website, said moving this wide-reaching legislation in an election year is a shrewd political move.
"The gun lobby in Iowa is very strong," he said. "There are a lot of Democrats, especially those in rural areas who want to be seen as pro-gun."
Sens. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa, and Steven Sodders, D-State Center, are two pro-gun Democrats whose rural districts are seen as being in play by Republicans.
Rielly, who already is taking a risky political position by coming out - albeit cautiously - for a gas tax increase, might feel pressure to make amends by taking up the NRA-backed firearms bills.
"I don't think so right now," he said. "I respect the committee process and the decisions by the Judiciary Committee, just as, I think, (the other senators) respect what I do in my committee."
Rielly is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Chris Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said the gun lobby might not be all it's cracked up to be in the state. He thinks it's a second-tier lobby that doesn't have the political muscle of such organizations as the Iowa Farm Bureau or the various education lobbies.
"If you think about states with powerful gun lobbies, they tend to be those in which electorate has a strong or has had a strong anti-government bent, more traditional political cultures to borrow from Daniel Elazar's classic work on political culture," he wrote in an email. "The political culture of Iowa, at least recently, has never really been anti-government - the majority of Iowans see some role for government in terms of regulating society, thus completely eliminating gun restrictions would run counter to the majority preference of Iowa voters."
Windschitl, meanwhile, said he'll continue to push greater access to firearms for law-abiding Iowans against people who are willing to accept less.
"People don't understand why our founding fathers recognized that the Second Amendment is a fundamental right. There are people who are out there that believe the Second Amendment was written to protect our hunting rights or to have a militia," he said. "I believe our Second Amendment right was written to protect us from a tyrannical government, to give us the opportunity to protect ourselves and our homes."
Firearms bills in Iowa house
The Iowa House of Representatives likely will approve several bills this year aimed and reducing the restrictions on firearms. Conventional wisdom says that the bills will die in committee in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, pro-gun advocates hope to apply pressure during this election year and get a handful of senators to move bills directly to the floor for a vote where they think at least some will pass. The key pieces of legislation are:
- House Joint Resolution 2005: An amendment to the Constitution that says Iowans have a fundamental right to "acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes'' that cannot be infringed upon or denied. It also prohibits mandatory licensing, registration and special taxation of firearms. This bill has passed out of a House subcommittee.
- House File 2115: The "stand your ground" bill that says a person who is threatened can use reasonable force, up to and including deadly force, to protect themselves, other people and property. This bill has passed out of a House committee and is set for a vote by the full House.
- House File 2160: Legislation that eliminates a state administrative rule that bans firearms from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. This bill has been assigned to a subcommittee.
- House File 2114: The "pre-emption" bill. This legislation makes it illegal for cities, counties and other political subdivisions to declare places under their respective jurisdiction - such as a building or a park - firearm-free. This bill was expected to pass out of subcommittee on Thursday, but lawmakers are tinkering with the language and did not vote on it.