Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines said the principal of East High School had one request after a shooting occurred on school grounds: “Take the guns out of the hands of my babies.”
A Des Moines teenager, Jose Lopez, died last week, the victim of a drive-by shooting at the school. Two East High students were injured in the confrontation. Police charged six teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 17, with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.
Several Democratic lawmakers from Des Moines joined the Rev. Frantz Whitfield, president of the Iowa chapter of the National Action Network, on Tuesday to advocate for more restrictive gun laws.
“Young people are being gunned down by immature and untrained individuals who are finding it all too easy to obtain firearms,” Whitfield said. “So today, I am calling for change.”
Sen. Claire Celsi said there was a “flood of illegal guns” in the state due to Republican-led laws and the negligence of gun owners who fail to lock up firearms.
“There’s no other way to say it: Republican-sponsored measures have weakened Iowa’s gun laws,” Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said. “The resulting policies have failed our kids and our communities.”
Democrats pointed to two recent measures on firearms. The first is a “constitutional carry” law, passed in 2021, which allows Iowans to acquire or carry a handgun without a permit. Lawmakers also approved a proposal to amend the Iowa constitution to explicitly protect Second Amendment rights. That amendment will appear on Iowans’ ballots in November.
Police have not revealed where or how the East High shooters obtained their firearms. Under Iowa law, minors may not purchase handguns or long guns.
Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said recently passed gun laws did not “have any impact” on the East High shooting, noting that it is already illegal for minors to purchase guns and for anyone to shoot out of car windows toward people. Holt was a leader on both the constitutional carry law and proposed constitutional amendment.
“It doesn’t matter what laws we put on the books,” Holt said. “We’re talking about inanimate objects. Inanimate objects are not the problem, the problem is the values and what is going on that would enable this sort of behavior to be okay.”
Holt pointed to Republican efforts to increase access to mental health care and substance abuse counseling as ways to address the underlying causes of violence.
“You get back to the root issue – the government will never have enough resources to deal with the breakdown of families and the breakdown of those values that would prevent these sort of things,” Holt said.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Democrats proposed additional restrictions on guns, like universal background checks or red flag laws. Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, suggested legislation that would require Iowans to report lost or stolen guns to the police, allowing the state to create a database of missing weapons.
Democrats also recognized the complex issues behind gun violence. They called for more additional resources for youth safety and community-building, especially for minorities in Iowa.
“The shooting at East High stems from more than the availability of guns,” Gaines, D-Des Moines, said. “It stems from lack of educational resources. It stems from lack of community resources, especially now to our Latino families. But most importantly, it stems from a lack of caring – caring about our fellow human beings enough to realize that the laws that we pass, as legislators, affect the lives of every single Iowan.”
Gaines and Anderson advocated for the election of new, diverse lawmakers to address gun control in future sessions. Currently, the Iowa House has just a handful of nonwhite lawmakers. There are no people of color currently serving in the Iowa Senate.
“We need the right people at the table,” Gaines said. “We need the right people who are ready to move together.”
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