Gun violence continues while gun control restrictions loosen in Iowa

Advocates for gun control face barriers to legislative change in the Republican controlled Iowa Legislature, local solutions could offer the answer to community gun violence.


Matt Sindt

Temple Hiatt poses for a portrait by Edward Jones in Coralville on March 21, 2023. (Matt Sindt/The Daily Iowan)

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

Temple Hiatt’s nephew showed signs of mental illness the day of his death. A Red flag gun safety law could have saved his life.

Hiatt, a volunteer with Iowa Moms Demand Action, said legislation should be put in place to minimize harm from firearms. But until that happens, it’s up to the community to know how to stay safe. Phillip Travis, Hiatt’s nephew, died by suicide from a gun in 2014. This loss has influenced her advocacy by showing her firsthand how gun safety can save lives.

As Iowa legislators loosen up regulations on firearm ownership in the state, gun control activists are continuing to work toward decreasing gun violence through community-based intervention programs.

Hiatt said firearm owners should lock and secure their weapons to keep their loved ones safe, and this is what the organization’s Be Smart program focuses on.

“We actually have conversations with people in the community about our program, which empowers parents and adults to ask about the presence of unsecured loaded weapons in the homes where their children or grandchildren would go to visit,” Hiatt said. “That is something that every person in our community can participate in.”

Between 2018 and 2021, gun violence was the cause of death of 1,291 Iowans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Of those deaths, 16 were unintentional, 1,017 were death by suicide, and 233 were homicides.

Iowa Moms Demand Action, Hiatt said, has been advocating for a Red flag law in the Iowa Legislature. This law would require medical professionals and law enforcement officers to intervene when a gun owner, or someone who lives around firearms, has a crisis where they may hurt themselves or others.

In 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law an omnibus gun safety bill that included incentives for states to enact Red flag laws like federal funds for awareness campaigns and more.

“With any other means, that cry for help gets a second or third chance,” Hiatt said. “You get the chance to get treatment and to have conversations about next steps. When a gun is involved, you don’t have that.”

Hiatt said she testified at the statehouse against a bill that would require National Rifle Association classes at schools. The main message of the class would teach children not to touch any firearm that they encounter, she said.

“Parents and guardians who believe their child will be safe from touching or using a gun they encounter are given a false sense of security when, in reality, you cannot educate the curiosity out of a child,” Hiatt said during her testimony at the statehouse in February. “The responsibility to prevent gun violence should not rest on the judgment of mere children but instead must rest on the gun owner’s secure storage procedures.”

The bill Hiatt refers to, House File 73, was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Skyler Wheeler from Orange City and Democratic Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad from Des Moines and did not survive the legislative deadline requiring the bill to pass a committee vote by March 3.

Ruthina Malone, Iowa City Community School District School Board president, said school faculty has been working with the city’s equity department to decrease violence at the K-12 level through restorative justice techniques.

Malone said students are given the tools they need to work out issues in a peaceful and communicative way before reacting in a violent manner.

“What we are mainly looking at is the education piece, because as a school district, you know, that’s our primary goal is to educate our students, as well as our families, if possible, on things that impact their students,” Malone said.

Additionally, Malone said, the school district has approved a plan to place a new system in some of their schools that can pick up on any underlying safety concerns in the school, including if a student or faculty member brings in a weapon.

Malone said school districts in other states that are similar in size are considering adding metal detectors or increasing student resource officers to prevent violence on school grounds, but she said parents in Iowa City have vocalized concern for both of these measures.

Students in the area, Malone said, are concerned about the nature of weapons that people can own. They are educated in mass shootings and the damage that firearms can cause, she said, which causes Iowa City’s youth to want to see more laws on the state level.

“What was the true essence of the right to bear arms? I get our constitution is precious, but I also think we have to look at it through the eyes of when it was written and get an understanding of if we are doing our best to not only protect our future, but ourselves when it comes to gun violence, gun access, and overall gun education,” Malone said.

Iowa City Public Safety Information Officer Lee Hermiston said there was a 65 percent decrease in confirmed shots fired calls in Iowa City in 2022, from 37 calls in 2021 to 13 calls in 2022. He attributes these results to the partnership between the Iowa City Police Department and the members of the public who are dedicated to keeping Iowa City safe.

Hermiston said the police department has a three-person Street Crimes Action Team dedicated to investigating weapons crimes. In 2022, 121 firearms were seized from unlawful owners, and the team assisted in the seizure of 81 guns.

“Addressing gun violence has been – and continues to be – one of the department’s highest priorities,” Hermiston said. “We do this through diligently investigating all instances of gun violence and seeking to identify those responsible for these acts and hold them accountable for their actions.”