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TMCNet:  Gun permit law raises courthouse worries [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa]

[November 17, 2010]

Gun permit law raises courthouse worries [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa]

(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 17--In January, the Des Moines County Sheriff's office won't be able to keep someone from carrying a handgun, shotgun, rifle or even a samurai sword into a board of supervisors meeting.


Or, for that matter, into county offices to renew a vehicle license, file a marriage certificate or appeal a property tax assessment.

A new state law requires Iowa sheriffs to grant requests for firearms carry permits, Sheriff Mike Johnstone told supervisors Tuesday, making all those things legal for a potentially growing number of people.

"It's a recipe for disaster," Johnstone said.

The revised gun-permit statute does not restrict possession of firearms in local government buildings, said Johnstone, who stated lawmakers ignored concerns expressed by law enforcement agencies.

Johnstone said the only part of the courthouse where a weapons ban may be enforceable is in courtrooms, where judges likely have discretion to prohibit them.

The law does create weapons-free zones in state-owned facilities and on school grounds.

Unlike local government buildings, private businesses will be able to restrict weapon possession, meaning people who refuse to comply face trespassing charges, Johnstone said.

Since he cannot stop it, Johnstone said he wants to raise awareness about the law change so people will "not be shocked" seeing a civilian with a loaded pistol in the courthouse or any other public building or area.

"This is like a return to the Old West," Supervisor Dan Cahill said, calling the relaxed permit standard "a step backward" for civilization.

Outgoing Supervisor Jeff Heland said the past decade's effort to enhance courthouse security is compromised.

"What are you going to do regarding courthouse security?" Heland asked Johnstone.

"There's nothing more I can do," the sheriff said.

Board chairman Bob Beck responded tongue-in-cheek, noting members of the board could be provided with weapons.

Beck went on to suggest having multiple people armed could be a deterrent if someone becomes a problem, but Johnstone said he would worry about unarmed bystanders.

While he does not dispute citizens' right to carry weapons, Johnstone said he opposes the law's lack of safeguards. The only way he could deny a carry permit, he said, would be with probable cause that an applicant is likely to harm to himself or others.

Johnstone said even Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the state's top law enforcement official, has been unable to define probable cause under the new law.

Cahill asked if the board could adopt a resolution banning weapons in the courthouse and other county buildings. Johnstone told him "no." "The only way is through the Legislature," the sheriff said.

With the 2011 Legislature set to open days after the law takes effect, Johnstone urged supervisors and others to contact lawmakers and press for additional safeguards in the permitting process.

"I'm required to sign (permits)," Johnstone said. "Even for those I know in my heart should not be carrying." Until changes can be lobbied through the statehouse in Des Moines, Johnstone said he has to take at face value the assurances he has received from people in other states with similar laws that it hasn't been a problem.

Heland, who also has served as Burlington's mayor and a trustee of Southeastern Community College, said he worries about a "chilling effect" on local government.

Invoking the memory of Edd King, the Mount Pleasant mayor who was gunned down 24 year ago during a city council meeting, Heland expressed concern local elected officials and others might live in fear of making decisions prompting anger in a gun-toting member of the audience.

Cahill agreed emotions often do run high in a courthouse.

In other business, the board approved a policy change prohibiting county employees from using office phones for personal long-distance calls. The change accompanies the installation of a new telephone system and rate plan, which provides an allotment of 4,000 minutes.

With the previous system, county workers were able to find their calls on phone bills and reimburse the county, said Gina Erickson, Des Moines County information technology director.

That won't be possible with the minute allotment.

Cahill stressed county employees weren't running up big bills. Erickson said personal long-distance calls will be limited to private cell phones.

In addition to losing long-distance phone privileges, employees will be charged $1 per page for personal long-distance faxes and $1.99 for personal directory assistance calls.

With the new system in place, Erickson said the county expects to save $470 a month immediately and $1,200 a month at the end of the five-year lease agreement for telephone system equipment with Fairport, N.Y.-based PaeTec.

The board also approved the first reading of a zoning change to convert a 10-acre parcel at West Avenue and Washington Road from residential to agricultural zoning to permit construction of an electrical substation by Alliant Energy.

To see more of The Hawk Eye or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.thehawkeye.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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