Iowans will have to campaign around a potential pro-gun amendment in 2022

In the 2022 midterm elections, Iowans will get the chance to vote on whether or not Iowa should amend its constitution to include new language to strengthen the Second Amendment.


Ben Smith

Guns are displayed at Scheels in Coralville on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. The Iowa House recently accepted the stand-your-ground-provision, an amendment to HF 517, which permits an individual to use deadly force when their life is in danger.

In 2022, Iowa politicos and other advocacy groups will not only be campaigning for seats in the Legislature, but also for the fate of a potential amendment to Iowa’s constitution that would make the right to bear arms a fundamental right.

While Iowa voters can find the amendment proposal on their November 2022 ballots and experts are expecting advocacy money to pour in from across the state to advertise it, University of Iowa Law Professor Todd Pettys said that voters often don’t even make it all the way to the final questions on their ballots.

“People really only want to vote for the major seats and having to flip the paper over adds an extra step that people do not want to do,” Pettys said.

For more than eight years, Iowa Republicans have fought to amend the Iowa Constitution to apply strict scrutiny over the right to bear arms. If voters pass this amendment, then courts will have to apply a higher standard to proposed laws regarding gun rights.

Richard Rogers, a volunteer and board member for the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said that the Iowa Firearms Coalition, along with the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights activist groups, will spend the next two years campaigning and persuading the public in favor of the amendment. Iowans will hear plenty of arguments both in favor of and against the amendment, he said, but was unwilling to share how they plan to campaign.

“We are mostly concerned that we will be battling big money groups over the next couple of years, but we are in a good position right now to honor the rights of Iowans,” Rogers said.

Gun rights enthusiasts would have rather had this amendment on the ballot in 2020, but that plan was thrown off course by the Secretary of State’s Office. Rogers said he wanted the amendment on the 2020 ballot because Iowa voted overwhelmingly for Republicans this cycle.

Former President Donald Trump won 53 percent of the vote in Iowa and encouraged a record turnout for voters in Iowa. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the state went from having three Democratic U.S. representatives to three Republicans in the U.S. House, while Republicans in the state Legislature expanded their majority.

Iowa is one of only six states that don’t have Second Amendment protections enshrined in their state constitutions. However, including the “strict scrutiny” language, a legal standard that often applies to cases involving discrimination or fundamental rights, requires a law that could infringe on a basic right be narrowly tailored to suit a compelling government interest. Iowa would become just the fourth state in the U.S. that would use such strict language regarding the Second Amendment.

Erica Fletcher, an Iowa volunteer leader with Moms Demand Action, a national gun control advocacy group, said this year and next will involve persuading Iowans and advocating against the amendment. She said that as long as Iowans understand how this amendment could affect common sense gun laws, she’s confident Iowans will vote against it on their ballots.

The gun control advocate said she is worried that the amendment would increase gun violence and cause courts to be full of cases where domestic abusers want to obtain a firearm. Moms Demand Action, along with Everytown For Gun Safety, the umbrella group for national gun control advocacy, hope to reach voters through virtual advocacy days.

“I think that if we can communicate with voters, many of whom do not support amending the constitution, we can be on the winning side of this,” Fletcher said.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, proposed the amendment to the Iowa Constitution, which would state that the U.S. Second Amendment rights are considered fundamental rights to not be infringed upon without being subject to “strict scrutiny.”

“The Second Amendment is not a second class right,” Holt said during the House Public Safety subcommittee where the amendment was introduced. “Just like the right to speech and the right to assemble. That’s why it’s the Second Amendment. Fundamental rights deserve strict scrutiny, why would anyone want one right less vigorously protected than another?”

In a years-long process, a proposed constitutional amendment must be passed in both the Iowa House and the Senate in two consecutive sessions. Then, it goes on the ballot for a simple majority of Iowa voters to vote whether to ratify it.

On Jan. 28, both the chambers voted in favor of the amendment, along party lines, for the second time.

Holt said that he did his best to get the legislation through the House, but campaigning would be the responsibility of those who support the amendment to get the information out to voters.

Why are Republicans encouraging this amendment?

In January 2019, the amendment failed to pass because of an oversight error in Secretary of State Paul Pate’s Office where they failed to publish the required notification that the Iowa Legislature had begun the process of amending the constitution. This setback caused the amendment process to start over.

Holt said that they started this process when Trump, who was in favor of strengthening the Second Amendment, was president. However, he said, when it had to be proposed a third time, it was even more important to push through, because the federal Democratic majority is not as open to gun rights as the previous Congress.

The three states that have already amended their constitution to change the language regarding gun laws to strict scrutiny are Missouri, Louisiana, and Alabama.

Iowa Democrats say the strict scrutiny language would prevent the passage of any future gun regulation that might be necessary to protect Iowans.

Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, said strict scrutiny is generally reserved for matters of protected classes such as race, gender, and religion, and that the Second Amendment should not fall under this classification.

Anderson said Iowa has good gun laws that protect people, and that any gun restrictions are already narrowly defined.

“I opposed this bill because I don’t think we should extend the measure of strict scrutiny that is generally reserved for civil rights, to the, as you say, fundamental rights to own a gun,” Anderson said.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said the amendment, which she opposed, would likely take down every reasonable gun law in Iowa if it raises the standard beyond the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Wessel-Kroeschell said the current language in the U.S. Constitution regarding the Second Amendment already protects the right to bear arms, and she said strict scrutiny language was unnecessary.

“In this time of increased divisiveness after the U.S. Capitol was stormed and defiled by an armed mob with violent intent, we need to step back. This is not the time to rush a constitutional amendment to eliminate Iowa’s common sense gun laws,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Would this amendment affect Iowa’s current gun laws?

Pettys said strict scrutiny is a common constitutional standard of review to determine if individual rights are being violated. When a court applies strict scrutiny, he said, the courts are demanding a compelling justification for interfering with these individual rights.

Republicans have been trying to change the Iowa Constitution since 2012 in order to build an “iron wall” around the Second Amendment, Pettys said.

Before reaching questions concerning the applicable standard of review, Pettys said, courts might conclude that many of the individuals claiming that their rights are being infringed upon are a part of categories that push their claims beyond the Second Amendment’s reach.

“If gun-rights lawmakers want to secure impactful constitutional reform, they may need to tailor the language of their proposed amendments far more closely to the specific gun rights they wish to protect,” Pettys said.

Iowa is a “stand your ground” state, meaning civil immunity is granted when use of force is justified. The Hawkeye State also allows issuing a permit to residents beginning at 18 years old and recognizes permits from all other states.

Background checks for handguns in Iowa are applicable for five years. Gun owners used to have to get a background check done annually, but that law was changed in 2017.

Legislation to limit magazine capacity in rifles that was introduced by Democrats would be seen as unconstitutional if voters ratify the amendment.

“Our concern is about having strict scrutiny as a backup, because right now we have a lot of people considering packing the court to reverse any decisions,” Rogers, a board member for the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said.

According to a poll from Public Policy Polling, 83 percent of Americans support a criminal background check when purchasing firearms, yet Wessel-Kroeschell said under strict scrutiny, nobody knows how Iowa’s Supreme Court will interpret the current gun laws.

Holt said that the amendment would prevent restrictive gun legislation from being passed that would have otherwise been passed without needing to be examined any closer.

“We need this amendment to stop backdoor attempts in Iowa that infringe on the fundamental right to keep and bear arms through taxation, attacks on gun manufacturers, or arbitrary laws that attempt to outlaw certain types of firearms,” Holt said.

Wessel-Kroeschell said only 30 percent of all laws withstand a strict scrutiny challenge, which increases her concern with the amendment proposal. She said that if the amendment passes, she will be worried that Iowa’s background checks and requirement for a permit to carry will be eliminated.

“Every American should have the freedom to be safe in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Freedom to live our lives without the constant threat of gun violence hanging over our heads,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “The reckless disregard for the gun violence that plagues so many people’s lives is morally bankrupt and doesn’t have anything to do with protecting freedom.”