The Iowa House approved two gun-rights measures Wednesday night that sparked Democrats to stage a walkout earlier in the day, stalling action for six hours.
One bill would allow people to use deadly force to protect themselves and the other called for writing gun rights protections into the Iowa Constitution. The second measure would have to be approved by another legislative assembly next year and then be referred to voters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines said the chamber's 40 Democrats decided to return after deciding they'd made their displeasure clear regarding a lack of notice about the bills and concerns the proposals would gut the state's gun laws. He said he feared the votes would turn Iowa into the Wild, Wild West."
"It would eliminate all gun laws," he said. "This issue is very, very extreme. This proposal is not a mainstream proposal."
Backers argued for the change in the Constitution, warning judges are eager to limit the rights of gun owners.
"For far too long, we've seen judicial abuse of our Second Amendment," said Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri River, the main backer of the effort.
Critics argued the measure would largely pre-empt virtually all of the state's gun control laws, a charge Windschitl rejected as "simply false."
Both measures were approved largely along party lines in the GOP-led chamber where Republicans have a 60-40 margin.
Republicans could have technically debated the bills without Democrats in attendance. The Iowa rules are different than in Wisconsin and Indiana, where similar Democrat walkouts stretched on for weeks. More than half the lawmakers must be on hand to conduct business in those states, though Wisconsin Republicans eventually used a procedural move to approve legislation opposed by Democrats.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he decided not to press the issue while Democrats were missing because that would have poisoned the atmosphere around an issue that's already emotionally charged.
"Right now I'm trying to be patient," Paulsen said. "Part of my job is to protect the institution."
The future of the measures is unclear as they move to a Senate where Democrats have a 26-24 margin. Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, says he has no plans to bring the issue up for debate.
Gronstal said he wasn't warned in advance of the walkout.
"I know nothing about what happened," he said.
Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said the governor would have no comment.