by John Feinblatt
Every four years, the national media looks to Iowa for stories about where American voters stand on pressing issues.
After what happened this spring here in Des Moines, it’s clear where Iowans stand on guns and public safety — and how Iowans made their voices heard is a story that deserves to be told.
It starts in the Statehouse, where the NRA’s lobbyists pushed Senate File 425. The bill set out to overturn a longstanding background check requirement on private handgun sales. In effect, the gun lobby wanted to get rid of a provision that helps ensure guns sold at places like gun shows and via the Internet are subject to the same rules as guns sold at federally licensed dealers.
In quickly advancing the bill to the floor, gun lobby-aligned lawmakers conveniently avoided talking about what the bill would actually do. They went so far as to say that that the bill was focused on “safety improvements.” They also touted the bill’s other provisions, including those that would streamline the law to ease some restrictions on law-abiding gun owners. The lobbyists never mentioned repealing background checks. That makes sense, since 88 percent of Iowans support the background check policy.
In the run-up to the final vote on the Senate floor, I reached out to Republican strategists in Iowa to see whether the NRA could be stopped.
“Not a chance,” longtime political observers told me. “They’re too powerful and once they’ve gotten something on the floor, there’s no way to beat them.”
We’ve heard that line for years. Too often, we’ve taken it for granted. The truth is, there’s only one way to find out if the conventional wisdom is actually accurate: show up and fight back.
And that’s what we did.
The Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action, part of Everytown for Gun Safety, went to work. Iowa moms made nearly 5,000 phone calls to state senators, explaining what the bill really would do. They held an advocacy day and delivered petitions filled with signatures. They ran informational advertisements in newspapers across the state.
Most important, they talked face to face with their friends and neighbors.
In the end, the so-called experts were wrong. The Legislature never passed the bill, and the “unbeatable” gun lobby saw its top legislative priority in Iowa defeated.
The lesson we should take from Iowa is simple, and bears repeating.
When people know what’s in a bill —when legislators understand the consequences of what they’re voting on — they’ll do the right thing.
Using misleading language to mask a bill’s true purpose may have worked in the past, but it didn’t this time. Once we got away from the horse-trading lobbyists at the Capitol and into cities and towns throughout the state, we saw that the public wanted to keep the background check system in place. Iowans know that keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous felons is just common sense. Like the vast majority of Americans, they believe that Second Amendment rights go hand in hand with basic safety measures.
The defeat of SF 425 is more than just a political victory, though. Iowans will be safer as a result of its defeat. We know this because in nearby Missouri, legislators overturned a background check requirement in 2007 and the results were deadly. Research by the scholar Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, found that after Missouri did the gun lobby’s bidding and gutted its background check system, the state’s gun homicide rate increased by nearly 25 percent. We know, too, that the gun suicide rate in Iowa is 27 percent lower than in states that lack comprehensive background check measures.
Ultimately, the win in Iowa serves as yet another reminder that when you try new approaches and get voters engaged on an issue, powerful interests can be defeated.
When the people go head to head against the gun lobby, the people —and public safety —can prevail.
John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety. Contact: email@example.com