In 2018, the Center for American Progress and Progress Iowa wrote an issue brief warning that, while gun violence in Iowa remained relatively low compared with other states, efforts in the Legislature to weaken the state’s gun laws threatened the safety of Iowa communities. Unfortunately, Iowa lawmakers did not heed this warning and in 2021 continued to undermine gun safety in the state by repealing two crucial measures that have helped keep gun violence in Iowa at comparatively low levels: 1) the law requiring a permit, and therefore a background check, prior to every handgun sale and 2) the law requiring a permit to carry loaded, concealed handguns in the community.
Increase in Iowa firearm homicides from 2019 to 2020
At the same time, similar to trends in other states, the coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an increase in gun deaths in Iowa: According to early data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, gun-related deaths reached an all-time high in 2020, with an estimated 353 people killed. Once again, it is crucial that policymakers in Iowa take the issue of gun violence seriously and resist efforts to further weaken the state’s gun laws.
Recent trends in gun violence in Iowa
Prior to 2020, Iowa saw relatively low rates of gun violence compared with the rest of the United States. In 2019, Iowa was ranked 43rd in gun violence across the country, with 9.1 firearm related deaths per 100,000 people—25 percent lower than the national average. However, Iowa’s low rates of gun violence trended upward in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic: Early data from the Iowa Department of Public Health reveal that firearm homicides in 2020 jumped 20 percent over 2019. If previous trends hold, the toll of this increase in homicides does not affect all Iowa communities equally: According to an analysis done by CAP using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, from 2015 to 2019, Black Americans made up only 4 percent of the population in Iowa yet accounted for 39.8 percent of gun homicides in the state.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of this surge of gun violence, unprecedented events during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated underlying crises that increased the risk for community violence. Gun violence disproportionately affects Black Americans, and these same communities bore the brunt of the COVID-19 cases in Iowa. At the same time, Iowa’s unemployment rate during the height of the pandemic was 11.1 per 100,000—a dramatic increase from its previous rate of 2.9 per 100,000 in February 2020, immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Everytown for Gun Safety explains that the pandemic-related economic distress had a significant impact on gun violence. This particularly affected Black and Hispanic communities, who saw a disproportionate number of layoffs. On top of the economic and health crises that heavily affected communities last year, the United States saw a historic surge in gun purchases.
Share of Iowa population that is Black, 2015–2019
Share of Iowa gun homicides affecting Black Americans, 2015–2019
One group particularly at risk for firearm-related homicide is survivors of domestic violence. A 2003 study found that the presence of a firearm during a domestic violence situation is associated with a fivefold increase in the likelihood that someone will be killed. In Iowa, nearly 50 percent of all female intimate partner deaths occur with a firearm, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. An analysis of FBI data by CAP shows that from 2010 to 2019, 58 women were murdered by an intimate partner in Iowa, and 45 percent of those were committed with a gun.*
Gun-related suicide also remains a significant problem in Iowa: According to an analysis of CDC data by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, 79 percent of gun deaths in the state are suicides. Between 2015 and 2019, 1,107 people in Iowa lost their lives to firearm-related suicide, accounting for 46 percent of all suicides in the state during that period. Unfortunately, recent data are consistent with a steady uptick in firearm suicides in Iowa that has been on the rise since 2009.
Legislative action to weaken gun laws in Iowa
In the 2018 issue brief, CAP and Progress Iowa highlighted legislative actions taken at that time to weaken the state’s gun laws, including enacting dangerous “stand your ground” laws, weakening the training requirements for concealed carry permits, and lowering the age of handgun use to 14 with supervision. Unfortunately, in 2021, the state went even further to remove legal protections against gun violence. Iowa’s recently enacted H.F. 756 repealed two crucial gun safety measures: requirements for permits to purchase firearms and for permits to carry concealed firearms.
Prior to the recent repeal, Iowa law required a potential handgun purchaser to first obtain a permit that included a background check to ensure that the individual is legally eligible to purchase a gun and not prohibited from gun possession under state or federal law for reasons such as violent felony convictions or history of domestic abuse. Following this repeal, background checks are still required for purchases from a licensed gun dealer; however, no such requirement exists when purchasing from private gun sellers, opening a dangerous loophole that Iowa had previously closed. When policymakers in Missouri repealed a similar permit-to-purchase law, researchers found a 25 percent increase in the homicide rate in the two years that followed. A recent CAP issue brief found that this same permit-to-purchase law in Missouri was associated with an increase in gun theft in the state.
Concealed carry laws without a permit requirement are associated with a 13 percent to 15 percent increase in violent crime 10 years after the laws went into effect.
Additionally, H.F. 756 eliminated the requirement to obtain a permit to carry a concealed firearm in public spaces. Prior to this law, Iowa residents wishing to carry a concealed firearm in public had to apply for a permit with the sheriff’s office that required the applicant to have first undergone basic firearm safety training. This training is a critical step to ensure that every individual who carries a concealed gun in a public space handles their firearm responsibly. Other states that have forgone this measure have seen dangerous results. A study conducted by Stanford University researchers found that concealed carry laws without a permit requirement are associated with a 13 percent to 15 percent increase in violent crime 10 years after the laws went into effect.
Looking ahead: Extremism on the ballot
Unfortunately, lawmakers in Iowa are not finished weakening the state’s gun laws. The Legislature has advanced a measure that will be on the ballot in 2022 that would amend the state constitution to force judges to use an unusually stringent standard of review when considering legal challenges to any restrictive gun law. Only a few states have adopted this extreme approach, which would invite frivolous litigation, undermine decades of case law in the state courts, and put in jeopardy many moderate, commonsense gun laws.
Even in the wake of rising gun violence over the past year, the Iowa Legislature has repealed lifesaving measures and seeks to make it even harder for commonsense gun laws to prevail in the state. Iowa policymakers should instead work to protect their residents, particularly amid the public health and economic crises in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
* The analysis only includes homicides involving a single victim and a single offender.