More than 150 with criminal convictions can now carry guns

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | MARCH 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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More than 150 people with criminal records now have the right to carry guns in Johnson County.

In the two months since Iowa became a shall-issue state, drastically limiting sheriffs’ authority over to whom to grant gun permits, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek has issued licenses to 733 people. This is a dramatic increase from the 500 issued in all of 2010.

A Daily Iowan analysis shows at least 30 people who have been convicted of violent crimes may now legally carry guns in public. Twenty-two people convicted of an aggravated misdemeanor — one step below a felony and punishable by up to two years in prison — also have that right.

In total, the DI analysis shows roughly 100 people who have been given the right to carry guns in Johnson County in the past two months have been convicted of at least a total of 167 crimes at some point in their past. All of these convictions happened more than four years ago; the new law automatically disqualifies those who have received a serious or aggravated within the past three years.

Pulkrabek calculates 153 people out of the total 733 have convictions — higher than numbers from the DI analysis, which didn’t include PAULAs or people who couldn’t be verified with a birth date.

Neither the DI nor Pulkrabek’s figures include traffic violations or open-container convictions.

“The chant they kept saying all along was that more and more law-abiding citizens should be able to carry guns, and an armed society is a safe society,” Pulkrabek said in describing proponents of the shall-issue law. “Well, what this has done is allow criminals to carry legally. At least before, they had sanctions.”

Out of those who recently received permits, one has been previously convicted of disturbing the peace by fighting and OWI. Another has been charged with false imprisonment four times in addition to being convicted of child endangerment.

Since the law went into effect on Jan. 1, the Iowa City City Council and Johnson County Board of Supervisors have voted to ban guns on government-owned property.

“We all get a little uneasy when certain folks get firearms the sheriff feels uncomfortable with,” said Johnson County Supervisor Terry Neuzil. “It’s no coincidence this [gun] resolution was passed this year.”

Before the law, who could receive a license to carry was up to the sheriff’s discretion. But the new law puts limits on their judgment, and Pulkrabek said it makes many feel powerless.

Now, a sheriff can only examine the past two years of an applicant’s criminal history, and sheriffs must provide written statements explaining their reasoning if they choose to deny permits. Those decisions can be appealed to an administrative-law judge.

People convicted of a serious or aggravated misdemeanor within three years of applying for a permit are automatically disqualified.

Pulkrabek said he thinks the time frame is too short.

“Any person with common sense would say those people are not a law-abiding citizens, they shouldn’t be able to carry guns in public,” he said. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t be able to have a gun at home, but they should not be able to carry a gun in public.”

The law allows sheriffs to deny a permit if he or she has probable cause that a person “is likely to use a weapon unlawfully or in such other manner as would endanger the person’s self or others.” But Pulkrabek said the wording makes it difficult to prove.

The law also disqualifies citizens with felony or domestic-abuse convictions from obtaining a permit, but numerous people in Johnson County received permits after an original felony or domestic-abuse charge was lowered to a misdemeanor.

So far this year, Pulkrabek has denied a handful of permits, but he said he has never denied a permit to a law-abiding citizen — which he defined as someone who doesn’t have more than two or three convictions in the last 10 to 15 years.

Prior to this law, all 99 Iowa counties had individual discretion over how to issue permits.

And while both Democratic and Republican legislators agreed that the vague wording of the law has enabled more Iowa citizens to carry firearms in more places than ever before, they also said the law was necessary to create a unified permit-issuing system.

“The sheriffs are angry because we took the discretion away from them and said you will do it this way, and so they’re dragging their feet and trying to thumb their nose at the Legislature,” said Sen. Gene Fraise, D-Fort Madison, the chairman of the Senate committee that examines gun bills.

But Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said there is still room to improve the law. Legislators have proposed amendments that would prevent people from carrying in bars, prohibit long guns from public highways, compel gun owners to take a breath test if an officer suspects they’re intoxicated while armed, and regulate training requirements.

And while Sodders — a Marshall County deputy sheriff — said he understood Pulkrabek’s concerns, he said, he believes that the law still provides sheriffs a fair process.

“I’m not sure that it’s hard to deny at the end of the day,” Sodders said. “You still have all your other disqualifiers, and you don’t have to be right — you just have to be reasonable.”

Local permit holder Glen Modracek said he believes the Second Amendment should give all people the right to carry firearms until they prove they don’t deserve it.

“Until people demonstrate they’re irresponsible with guns, which I believe is cause for revoking it, I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

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