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Iowa considering gun law that Missouri authorities say has made stopping violent crime more complicated

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Dan Verbeck
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KCUR 89.3
Iowa lawmakers are considering a measure similar to one that passed in Missouri that subjects police departments to penalties for enforcing federal gun regulations.

A bill under consideration by the Iowa legislature that would penalize local police for enforcing federal gun laws has the backing of a Second Amendment absolutist who thinks the NRA is too soft on gun rights.

Aaron Dorr, a lobbyist for Iowa Gun Owners, has visited with Iowa state Rep. Jeff Shipley, a Van Buren County Republican, as he sought passage of the Iowa Second Amendment Preservation Act (SAPA). SAPA would expose local law enforcement to penalties of up to $50,000 for enforcing federal gun regulations in Iowa.

Dorr and his brothers are known for their strident and unyielding advocacy for unfettered access to guns.

The brothers have built a social media empire based around Second Amendment rights and are known for attacking Republicans who don’t support the gun laws they push.

The Dorr brothers were profiled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning NPR podcast in 2021, exploring the brother’s mission to “reconstruct America” using guns and Facebook. Dorr did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

In one of his many videos supporting SAPA, Dorr said the law was necessary to protect gun owners in case the Biden administration tried to enact federal gun control laws, echoing the justification offered by the Iowa bill’s sponsor.

“What we’re trying to do now with SAPA is perhaps the most consequential gun bill in the history of Iowa politics,” Dorr said in a Facebook video to his more than 300,000 followers. “We know it's going to be a major fight because we’re the ones who got this done last session in Missouri.”

Missouri passed its own version of SAPA in 2021, which drew criticism for complicating the sharing of resources between federal and local police in gun crime cases

That’s because the Iowa and Missouri bills allow anyone to sue a local police department if they believe their rights to firearms have been infringed, and collect up to $50,000 if their case is persuasive. The result is local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Missouri reluctant to work with one another because of the potential legal liability involved.

Iowa state Sen. Zach Nunn, a Bondurant Republican, introduced the legislation. Nunn is seeking a Republican nomination for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers the southwestern part of the state, including Des Moines. He said his bill will protect Iowans from federal overreach if the Biden administration decides to regulate guns.

He said recent “federal overreaches,” like vaccine mandates and eviction moratoriums, are the reason he introduced the bill, as he fears similar federal decisions could be made on Second Amendment rights in the near future.

In April, Biden issued an executive order that placed restrictions on pistol modifications, banned the sale of handmade firearm kits and ordered the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Justice Department to begin annual studies on gun trafficking.

“What we don’t want to have is a city or county go forward and knowingly or directly require law enforcement to work on a federal case that is in violation of either Iowa law or is in violation of the Second Amendment,” Nunn said.

However, in Missouri, local and federal police say the state’s SAPA law makes it harder to crack down on gun violence and solve violent crimes.

‘Potential lawsuits’

Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz, president of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, said police are frustrated by a lack of clarity in the law. He said police aren’t sure what they can and can’t do with federal agencies.

That’s causing Missouri police to end partnerships with federal law enforcement for fear collaborations could land their departments in court.

“It opens up law enforcement and the municipality to potential lawsuits,” Muenz said.

“No department — no police chief — wants to be a test case for a lawsuit, or a supreme court case or a challenge to the legislation.”
Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz, president of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association

Through a friend of the court brief, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Organization are backing a lawsuit filed by the city of Arnold, a city outside of St. Louis, earlier this month to clarify language in the law.

In a separate case, St. Louis and Jackson counties filed suit against the state in hopes of blocking the law. Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green denied the request, a decision Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt hailed as an “important victory” over the Department of Justice under the Biden administration.

The Missouri Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the lawsuit against the law in February.

In an affidavit submitted in support of that lawsuit, Frederic Winston, head of the ATF’s Kansas City Field Division, wrote that the law hinders collaborative partnerships in a state where “violent crime is a significant problem.”

He said a dozen officers in the state withdrew from working with ATF task forces because of the law, making crimes more difficult to solve through collaborations with local law enforcement.

“ATF has seen impacts that I believe hinder the collaborative partnerships and investigative information sharing that protect the people of Missouri,” Winston’s affidavit says. “SAPA has also impacted ATF’s ability to rely on state and local partners for information unrelated to ATF’s own investigations, including those related to the criminal use, possession, and trafficking of firearms.”

According to court filings, the Missouri State Highway Patrol cut ties with the ATF due to SAPA, suspending participation in all joint state-federal task forces and halting the sharing of certain data the federal government uses to solve crimes.

In August, Poplar Bluff Police Chief Danny Whitely told CBS 60 Minutes he no longer works with federal prosecutors on gun cases due to SAPA. He said last year he didn’t seek federal charges against a man who shot at his ex-girlfriend because of the possibility of legal recourse.

Disarming domestic abusers

Anti-domestic violence groups have their own concerns about SAPA’s language.

In a brief filed by the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MOCADSV), the organization criticized a portion of SAPA the group said hinders law enforcement’s protection of domestic violence survivors.

Before SAPA, federal law barred domestic abusers from owning guns. But Muenz said Missouri’s law doesn’t allow police to use the federal laws that allowed police to disarm domestic abusers in the past.

Muenz said departments have stopped confiscating weapons in domestic violence situations due to SAPA. He said it's another example where law enforcements’ fears of lawsuits from SAPA are preventing police from doing their work.

“I don’t want criminals to go free because we’re having to reduce what we do or maybe we’re not doing what we do for fear of being sued for violating this statute,” Muenz said.

Law enforcement, gun lobbyists undecided on bill

Dorr’s Iowa Gun Owners is one of three supporters of the law. Currently, there are 10 lobbying organizations against the passing of the law and six that are undecided. Among the supporters are Bill Gustoff, treasurer of the Republican Party of Iowa, and the Iowa Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a group that has supported anti-immigration and gun legislation in the past.

Nearly every law enforcement lobbyist has declared themselves undecided on the law and the Iowa Firearms Coalition, another Second Amendment rights group, is undecided on the legislation. Iowa Firearms Coalition Lobbyist Richard Rogers told Iowa Public Radio he supports the concept but said the bill needs changes.

“It’s somewhat of a, perhaps, a placeholder for the issue,” Rogers told Iowa Public Radio. “And we’d be really pleased to work with the sponsor and others… to perfect it. But we do think that it’s a very important issue that the state make these statements, somewhat symbolic, but also something to fall back on if they’re pressed.”

Opponents of SAPA are groups like the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Iowans for Gun Safety, the Iowa Conference of United Methodist Churches and the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.

Nunn said he is currently making changes to the law based on feedback received in the Judiciary Subcommittee, where the bill was passed 2-1. Sens. Jeff Reichmann of Montrose and Tom Shipley of Nodaway, both Republicans, voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Des Moines Democrat, voted against the bill.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Kavahn Mansouri joins the Midwest Newsroom from the Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat.