Iowa student gun safety advocates share 2023 policy goals

By: - January 3, 2023 4:02 pm

Waverly Zhao, March for Our Lives legislative co-director talks about the gun regulation advocacy group’s goals for the 2023 state legislative session at a news conference Jan. 3, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Students with March for Our Lives Iowa said Tuesday they plan to focus during the 2023 legislative session on firearm regulations which can hold up to the newly implemented constitutional amendment.

Group leaders held a news conference Tuesday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. Each year, the gun violence prevention group brings up “common sense gun policies” they plan to advocate for at the Capitol, but co-legislative director Waverly Zhao said Iowa’s midterm results will make implementing such measures more difficult.

Iowa voters chose to adopt the “Right to Keep and Bear Arms” amendment in the November 2022 election, with 65% of votes supporting the constitutional change. The new language means that any legislation restricting gun rights must hold up to “strict scrutiny,” meaning the measure must serve a “compelling state interest.”

“Strict scrutiny will endanger any hopes of introducing common-sense gun policy in the state of Iowa,” Zhao said. “Additionally, the vague and over-broad wording of the legislation leaves the definitions of terms like ‘arms’ and ‘restrictions’ up to broad interpretations, which may serve to undermine the few current gun regulation policies in Iowa.”

But the gun safety advocates said there are still measures state legislators can pass which they argue could help stop gun violence in Iowa. In their 2023 legislative agenda, March for Our Lives recommended Iowa legislators pass a mandatory three-day waiting period, universal background checks and mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms.

Esha Bolar, an 18-year-old senior at Johnston High School and co-state director for the advocacy group, said March for Our Lives had to take a step back from some of their more “ambitious” policy goals, like police demilitarization, given the new amendment and conservative majorities in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature.

“Now I don’t think that’s possible, amongst a lot of other kinds of gun violence prevention policy that we’ve researched in the past,” Bolar said. “But we know that with these three priorities we can see some kind of change happening.”

Bolar said she believes all three of the recommended policies will be able to hold up to any strict scrutiny challenges. Other states have implemented a three-day waiting period and universal background checks for acquiring firearms, which have survived court challenges finding they did not violate Second Amendment rights from the U.S. Constitution. However, new state constitutional amendment offers protections beyond the Second Amendment, which does not hold laws to the strict scrutiny test.

March for Our Lives speakers also said that mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms would align with Iowa code, and pointed to a piece of legislation Rep. Art Staed introduced in 2021 which did not progress past committee.

Bolar said the organization is already working with Democratic state legislators like Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad and Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott to reach their policy goals in the upcoming session. Some Republicans have also been open to discussions about gun violence prevention, she said, with hopes to work with more GOP legislators in the future.

March for Our Lives advocates also say they hope to see more action from Gov. Kim Reynolds on gun violence in the upcoming year. Reynolds announced the School Safety Bureau’s creation in June with $100 million in federal funds to address school shootings and other violence. Bolar said the group wants to see how these funds have been invested, and in addition to talking with the governor about further school safety measures.

“Kim Reynolds knows that it’s an issue,” Bolar said. “It’s happening in her own high schools in her own state. I think now we just need to try and figure out where we can take that.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.