The Year of the Gun
Following a recent outbreak of gun-related crimes across the country and concern weapons laws could change, the Buena Vista County Sheriff's Office has reported issuance of permits to carry weapons has tripled.
As of December 2012, 745 county residents have received permits. Prior to new state gun legislation enacted Jan. 2011, only 250 residents were permit holders.
"Normally in a month's time, we maybe process 15 or 20 applications," said BV County Sheriff Gary Launderville. "For the most part, those were renewals, but on a weekly basis, we are now receiving 20-30 new applications."
He anticipates new applications to continue at a steady pace.
Based on public comments, the increase appears to be due to a combination of factors.
Some have expressed anxiety that new federal legislation could strip them of their Second Amendment rights or limit what kinds of firearms can be purchased, while others feel safer keeping a weapon for home protection.
While a permit to carry is not required for guns kept at home, Launderville said some individuals still choose to get one. Per legislation that took effect Jan. 1, 2011, the Iowa permit to carry weapons covers purchase of handguns in addition to concealed/open carry or transport of handguns, long guns, shotguns and rifles.
"There's a fear factor of the federal government taking away their guns," he said.
Indeed, gun control is shaping up to be the issue of 2013, though Congress is currently at a loggerheads over a potential gun bill, with opinion sharply split over a ban on assault weapons, a limitation on the size of clips that could be carried, and a universal background check designed to weed out the mentally unstable with access to weapons. In this case the split in Washington isn't as much by politics as it seemingly is a divide between urban and rural sentiment.
The "fear factor" has also sparked a nationwide frenzy of purchasing ammunition. While available supply has decreased, prices have skyrocketed, impacting law enforcement budgets.
Although his department provides public safety, Launderville said he and his deputies receive no special priority and have to "wait like everyone else" for ammunition orders. One specific round the office ordered a year ago has yet to be received.
But with recent changes to Iowa gun law and increased weapons permit applications, Launderville has two key concerns - denial criteria and improper gun training.
Basis for denying permits is thin: domestic abuse convictions, felony convictions or court-determined to be mentally defective.
"This is where the issue comes in with the mental health part - just because someone has been committed does not necessarily mean they are disqualified," Launderville said. "They may have mental health issues, but a judge has to rule in the end they are mentally defective, and you rarely see that happening."
Although background checks are required for permits to purchase or carry, the sheriff's department does not have access to court records for mental health commitments. And while new law states a state database of mental health should be available, Launderville said it does not happen "on a regular basis."
"I could be issuing a permit to someone who has mental health issues," he said. "If we (sheriffs) are the ones by law having to issue, I think it's important we have all the information before we say 'yes' or 'no' to a gun permit."
Closing legal loopholes with the state legislature is near impossible.
"They will not even listen," Launderville said. "We (law enforcement) have been told (by the legislature), the law is what it is and they will not change it, even though we are the ones dealing with it."
Last year, law enforcement officials approached a unspecified state representative, showed him an individual's lengthy criminal background and asked if he would issue the individual a weapons permit.
The representative's response? Absolutely not.
"Even though those individuals had a lengthy criminal history, the sheriff still had to issue the gun permit," Launderville said, noting the legislator was shocked when he heard the news.
Prior to new legislation, few people in Buena Vista County were requesting permits to carry. After 2011, the sheriff's office has only denied three or four applications, due to prior felony convictions.
"The NRA wanted to sound like sheriffs were denying multitudes of applications prior to the new law, and that's just not true," he said.
He continued, "My job as a public safety officer is to protect, but when I am the one who has to sign the permit to purchase or carry for someone I have pretty serious doubts with, it creates a conflict for me."
Under new legislation, requirements for education have loosened. Prior to 2011, those seeking permits to carry had to attend training in a classroom and learn firearms safety while shooting their guns on a range.
While training with a certified NRA or law enforcement firearms instructor is still required to obtain a permit to carry, the new law does not specify a timeframe or curriculum guideline.
"That's the disturbing part, because an awful lot of people are going online and paying $50 for a course that may take 15 minutes to read," Launderville explained. "There are other private firearms instructors who have started their own businesses, but a lot of people coming in the door have said they only took a one to two hour class, and didn't learn anything about gun safety or gun laws. That's an issue."
Beginning in late February, the BV County Sheriff's Office will begin teaching a comprehensive permit course. Education will be three to four hours minimum and cover gun safety and weapons laws. The course is $20 for BV County residents and $50 for out-of-county residents.
A date for the class has yet to be determined, but interested individuals can call 712-749-2530 for more information.