Handguns on display at ABQ Guns in Albuquerque. (Sergio Flores/Bloomberg News)

With one stroke of a pen, Gov. Terry Branstad made Iowa one of the friendliest states in America for gun owners.

Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor selected by President Trump to be ambassador to China, signed a bill that many say is the most comprehensive and broadest piece of legislation on gun rights the state has ever seen. House File 517 will, among other things, allow citizens to use deadly force if they believe their lives are threatened; it will also allow them to sue local government officials if they think gun-free zones have violated their Second Amendment rights.

The signing of House File 517 last week marks the end of a decades-long battle for a bill that does more than make incremental changes to the state’s gun laws and will bring Iowa in line with its more gun-friendly neighbors such as Missouri and Wisconsin, said Barry Snell, president of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, an advocacy group affiliated with the National Rifle Association.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) signed a bill that many say is the most comprehensive and broadest piece of legislation on gun rights the state has ever seen. (Video: Terry Branstad)

“Without exaggeration, House File 517 is the most monumental and sweeping piece of gun legislation in Iowa’s history,” Snell told The Washington Post. “Never before have we passed a bill in which Iowa’s Second Amendment rights are legally recognized, claimed and protected quite so profoundly as this bill does.”

Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, applauded Branstad’s decision to sign the bill into law. The governor had called the bill “reasonable legislation” that he “could support.”

“It’s a great day for freedom,” Cox said in a statement, noting that Iowa had “joined the nationwide movement to expand law-abiding citizens’ constitutional right to self-protection.”

In response to the bill’s signing, Amber Gustafson, leader of the Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, delivered a stern warning.

“Make no mistake, the gun violence prevention movement is strong in Iowa, and we aren’t going away,” she said in a statement.

Gustafson was most critical of the bill’s “Stand Your Ground” provision, which says citizens who are not doing anything illegal can lawfully use “reasonable force, including deadly force” if they believe their lives are being threatened. The bill also frees a person who kills an “aggressor” from civil liability if he or she can justify the use of force.

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That provision has raised concerns that the bill would do more to increase gun violence in the state.

State Sen. Nate Boulton (D) said state law already allows Iowans to use deadly force if they are threatened in their homes or places of employment, adding that a Stand Your Ground law could lead some to misunderstand when deadly force may be used.

“I think anytime we are expanding the use of deadly force, we do have to be cautious about that,” Boulton said. “The reality is when you have a gun-violent situation and if someone is killed with gun violence, we’ll leave it to our courts to interpret and apply what the situation was that led to that death.”

Daniel Webster, director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, echoed Boulton in a column published last month in the Des Moines Register. The “Stand Your Ground” policy would only “expand justifications for killing others,” he wrote.

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“There is no credible research that indicates deregulation of public carrying of concealed firearms reduces violent crime or curtails mass shootings,” Webster wrote. “The most recent and most rigorous research shows that such policies, if anything, lead to more assaults committed with firearms.”

Another provision that has attracted criticism would essentially prohibit city, county and township officials from creating weapons-free zones by allowing gun-carrying citizens to file lawsuits and claim damages if they think their civil rights have been infringed upon. Critics have raised concerns about how the bill would affect security at places such as city halls and courthouses, many of which are gun-free zones.

Tom Ferguson, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, said because the bill does not exempt city halls or courthouses, local jurisdictions would face a constant threat of lawsuits and damages.

“The question becomes, ‘Is someone adversely affected if they want to go in there and are not allowed to carry a gun?’ ” Ferguson said.

The Iowa Judicial Branch, which oversees state courts, shares similar concerns. Spokesman Steve Davis said the judicial branch is unsure that the bill “will maintain the status quo on courthouse security.”

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The criticisms, however, did little to dissuade the bill’s avid backers.

HF 517 passed the state Senate 33 to 17 and the House, 57 to 36.

State Rep. Matt Windschitl (R), who led the drafting of the bill, said he has tried for years to make Iowa a Stand Your Ground state, like nearly half of the states in the country.

“This bill has been a work in progress for many years,” Windschitl said. “The driver behind this is to restore Iowans’ individual freedoms and liberties.”

Other provisions include allowing children under 14 to use pistols or revolvers as long as they are supervised by an adult age 21 and older, legalizing concealed-carry at state capitol buildings and grounds, prohibiting the government from confiscating firearms during state emergencies, legalizing short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and making records of permit holders confidential. The bill also would prohibit prosecutors from stacking an additional firearm charge if the weapon has nothing to do with the crime.

Robert Cottrol, an expert on gun laws and a professor at George Washington University, said many of the provisions have been standard practice in most states.

Aside from the Stand Your Ground law, most states with significant rural areas already allow children to possess firearms, Cottrol said. Many states also have enacted laws prohibiting the government from seizing people’s guns during state emergencies, after officials confiscated weapons during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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This is the first time in years that Republicans gained control of both the House and the Senate in Iowa, and gun rights advocates found an opportunity to catch up with its gun-friendly neighbors by addressing gun-rights issues in one fell swoop, said Snell of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association.

It’s not uncommon for states to pass gun-law revisions in one bill, according to the NRA, a supporter of the bill. Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have done so in recent years.

“This important legislation will make it easier for law-abiding gun owners to protect and defend themselves, while bringing Iowa’s gun law in line with those of other states,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement. “The reforms of HF 517 are part of a growing movement across all 50 states to strengthen Second Amendment rights and its enactment will be a significant victory for our members and law-abiding gun owners.”

The magazine Guns & Ammo ranks Iowa No. 38 among the best states for gun owners. At the top of the list are Arizona, Vermont, Alaska, Utah, Kentucky, Wyoming, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri and New Hampshire.

That is now likely to change.

The legislation might make Iowa “the leading edge of protecting the civil right” to bear arms, said Randy Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown University.

“When you have a constitutional right, it often requires the legislation to protect that right,” Barnett said. “That’s what Iowa is doing.”

This story, originally posted on April 12, has been updated. 

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