IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Gun deaths are surging in Iowa as a law is set to go into effect Thursday that will allow people to more easily buy handguns and carry them in public without training or a permit.
A record 353 Iowa residents died from gunshot wounds in 2020, including 263 suicides and 85 homicides, an Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman said Tuesday. The shooting deaths represent a 23% increase from Iowa's previous high of 287 in 2019, including an 80% jump in homicides, according to state data.
It's the most dramatic one-year hike in an upward trend that has accelerated since 2016. From 1999 to 2001, Iowa averaged only 194 annual gun deaths, including just 25 homicides, according to federal data.
Iowa is among several Republican-led states that have passed laws this year allowing for the permitless carry of guns, including one that will take effect Thursday in Tennessee and another in Texas on Sept. 1. Iowa's new law also eliminates a requirement that people pass background checks to obtain permits to purchase handguns, breaking with more than 20 other states that have similar policies.
A leading gun violence researcher said Iowa's surge in gun homicides in 2020 was part of a national increase that experts are trying to understand. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy said he expects Iowa's sweeping handgun deregulation that begins Thursday to make things worse, pointing to studies that have associated such changes elsewhere with a 25% or higher increase in homicides.
Eliminating Iowa's permit to acquire a handgun will facilitate impulsive purchases that can be associated with suicide and homicide and remove a deterrent against illegal gun trafficking, Webster said.
The number of legally bought guns used in crimes in Missouri spiked "pretty much overnight" after the state eliminated its permit to acquire in 2007, he said. Research also indicates that allowing people to carry loaded guns in public leads to more violent crime and increases in gun thefts from vehicles, he said.
"The direction Iowa is heading here based upon our research to me is very concerning," Webster said. "It sounds like a train wreck."
Under the law approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, people purchasing pistols or revolvers no longer need to obtain permits to acquire or carry handguns, a process that could take days for the background check to complete.
They must still pass an instant federal background check to buy handguns at retailers, but face no such requirement if buying through private sellers. They will not need any permit to carry guns on themselves or in their cars in most places, including the Iowa Capitol, and they no longer need to take an online training course on gun safety and self-defense.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill in April following pressure from conservative activists. She previously said the permitting system was "reasonable and responsible" and should remain.
Supporters say the Iowa law will prevent law-abiding citizens from having to apply to the government and pay a $50 carry permit fee to exercise their gun rights, while allowing them to quickly obtain handguns for self-defense.
"The relationship between your state government and the citizen is going to be flipped 180 degrees," said state GOP Sen. Jason Schultz, who noted that the push to loosen Iowa's firearm rules has taken decades. "You can bear that firearm without permission from the state in the form of a concealed weapon permit or in violation of any open-carry laws."
He said this would not harm public safety, calling it a "blessing on the citizenry and a problem for criminals because there's more good guys armed out there." But the new law is highly unpopular: two-thirds of those surveyed this month for the Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll said they disapprove.
Schultz spoke during a recent panel on the law sponsored by the Iowa Firearms Coalition, whose lobbyist Richard Rogers called it "the most significant single change in our state's weapons laws in living memory." He said it was more important than the 2011 law that limited the ability of county sheriffs to reject applications and caused the number of permits issued to skyrocket.
The law will have a dramatic impact on the court system. More than 600 people per year have been convicted of carrying firearms without a permit, an aggravated misdemeanor that will be wiped off the books, according to an analysis by the Legislative Services Agency.
Gun owners are expected to collectively save hundreds of thousands of dollars in permit fees annually, although some may still obtain permits so they can travel to other states with their firearms or purchase guns without a federal check.
The group Iowa Gun Owners, which pressured Reynolds to sign the bill, called it "a monumental advancement in Second Amendment freedom for law abiding Iowans who are sick of being tracked, traced, and registered like criminals, just to carry a gun."