Opinion: Lesson from Iowa Shootings: Listen to Law Enforcement on Gun Control

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 11:50 AM

guns (Getty Images/Getty)

When Iowa passed its gun rights law a year ago, it took the power to approve weapons permits away from the sheriffs and gave every Iowan the same right to buy and own handguns. I talked with several top county law enforcement officials who were deeply opposed to the new statute because they know local people in their respective counties and felt they knew which person might pose a risk.

As we reflect on the tragic shootings in Colorado, let me share with you a cautionary tale that I still remember as vividly as if it was yesterday.

On November 1, 1991, Gang Lu, a 28-year-old former graduate student at the University of Iowa went on a shooting spree. He killed four members of the university faculty and one student, and seriously wounded another student, before committing suicide. Among the dead was Prof. Christoph K. Goertz—one of America's top space physicists, a specialist on Jupiter and Saturn.

Gang Lu also killed Dwight R. Nicholson, chairman of the physics and astronomy department; Robert A. Smith, associate professor of physics and astronomy; and Linhua Shan, research investigator in physics and astronomy, and the winner of the Spriestersbach dissertation prize. Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, who was working in a university office, was shot at random, and survived, but was left paralyzed from the neck down. She died from breast cancer in 2008.

This was found among the writings in Gang Lu’s apartment:

I believe in the rights of people to own firearms. Privately owned guns are the only practical way for individuals/minority to protect them(selves) against the oppression from the evil organizations/majority who actually control the government and legal system. Private guns makes every person equal, no matter what/who he/she is.

That sounds like standard, reasonable Second Amendment philosophy.

But Lu also wrote bitter rants to the faculty about not receiving a top Ph.D. dissertation award, and not being able to find a job in physics. University of Iowa administrators ignored these clear warnings. (This is a reminder that higher education administrators need to be trained in management and crisis response, not just their academic disciplines.)

So how did he get the guns? As the LA Times reported:

Every workday, Sheriff Robert Carpenter issues from five to 20 gun permits to Iowans who come into his modern, red-brick building on Capital Street. All you have to do is walk up to the window next to the FBI's Most Wanted posters with $5 and a driver's license, fill out an application and wait three days while Carpenter's office does a background check with your local police department and the National Crime Information Center to make sure you have no criminal record.

Even back in 1991 Iowa’s gun laws had the fatal flaw of making background checks, which are legal and required, impossible for someone like Lu, who was not a U.S. citizen. And even though Robert Carpenter was unable to look into any criminal history in Lu’s homeland, he was told that wasn’t grounds for denying Lu a permit.

I’d personally like to know who in Des Moines said the sheriff could not prohibit a gun sale under these circumstances, where a background check was impossible. However, clearly the Iowa (and U.S.) standard on firearms is, “When in doubt allow a gun and ammunition sale.”

As we move on from the latest senseless shooting at the Colorado movie theatre, still apparently unable to have an intelligent national discussion on firearms and ammunition sales, it’s worth remembering the Iowa City shootings and the wisdom of sheriffs in vetting gun permits. At the very least, we ought to listen to law enforcement on this, not just the political demagogues who have become the guardians of our safety and our children’s well-being in movie theatres. As a member of the National Rifle Association, I am deeply disappointed.

It’s no coincidence that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime gun control advocate, came out with this surprising statement on Monday’s episode of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight”:

I don’t understand why the police officers across his country don’t stand up collectively and say, ‘We’re going to go on strike. We're not going to protect you unless you, the public, through your legislature, do what's required to keep us safe.'

Having reached an impasse between gun control advocates and 2nd Amendment fundamentalists, more and more people are thinking that giving law enforcement officials the final word on gun and ammunition ownership and regulation might be a viable and smart compromise. Let’s learn something from what happened in Colorado last Friday, and remember what happened in Iowa two decades ago.


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Comments [7]

Kenneth from Iowa

Shooting at people on a college campus is illegal, same as any murder, and it's terrible that most states make laws because of a few loose cannons. Dirty politics don't represent the most basic principals of the US. If you can't stand the governing theory in the US, then shred the bill of rights or move out. I am American, and I have seen many people, responsibly armed, stay out of trouble. I've owned firearms and carried certain weapons responsibly, lawfully and without any permits for over 7 years, and I am offended by the implications in this article. The author of this article would not survive in Switzerland, let alone the US.

Nov. 06 2012 06:12 PM
another one from iowa

I like how people always seem to think iowa being a "shall issue" state is going to increase gun crime when all it does is allow those who do follow the law to protect themselves

Oct. 25 2012 04:44 AM
The Harry Truth from Polk

That would be nice if the criminals would fallow the laws. Oh that is right, that's why they are criminals they don't fallow the laws.

Aug. 02 2012 01:54 PM
wb from jacksonville

lu was allowed into this country becuase of our stupid immigration laws. he was a known enforcer of a major drug triad being run out of hong kong. many of his professors had been advised against allowing his attendance but they went ahead and allowed his admission. america is adrift with millions of illegals who fit the bill of deranged madmen. sadly, the liberals allow anyone from the third world, anyone not white, to come into this country. sadly, florida now has an epidemic of tuberculosis because liberals like the one who wrote this article don't even demand bacjground or health checks on these new arrivals. so please don't blame guns or gun owners for liberal lack of common sense. if only america could deport the liberals and the criminals and let the rest of us live in peace. besides, your argument does not work, for if one person in any of those crowds had a gun they could have prevented the killings. instead of making it harder to have a firearm maybe we should try making it easier.

Jul. 28 2012 09:16 PM
Just Another Iowan from Iowa

Is Professor Schmidt suggesting we really listen to law enforcement or just those few Iowa law enforcement officers who agree with his issue advocacy?

The Iowa State Representative who introduced several recently enacted gun laws in Iowa is a retired Iowa State Trooper. He was law enforcement, he knows law enforcement and felt that some Iowa law enfrocement officials acted in a discriminary way. Hence, a bipartisian majority of two Houses of the legislature and a Democratic Governor agreed.

Numerous Iowa law enforcement officers applauded the change in law, which only changed the weapon permit law to require a reason to deny a permit. Sheriffs can still deny ANYONE they chose, but denied persons can now appeal to a district court judge. In other words, Iowa joined that legal precedent known as due process.

To the yarn regarding Sheriff Carpenter, he had all legal authority in 1991 to deny Gang Lu a weapons purchase permit. His ignorance of the law then does not speak well of CYA.

Oh - to make the record clear, Gang Lu was violating the law when he roamed through three campus buildings - the University was and is a gun-free zone. Gang Lu ignored the gun control laws, but his unarmed victims followed the law, to their detriment.

Jul. 25 2012 11:28 PM
Paul from Iowa

Am I missing something here? The first sentence says the Iowa law was enacted one year ago. The incident sited is 20 years old. The first sentence also says "it took the power to approve weapons permits away from the sheriffs", implying sheriffs had the power previously. As I recall the discovery that some sheriffs had never approved a permit to anyone had an impact in getting the new law passed.

Jul. 25 2012 04:24 PM

Is suggesting the police go on strike a great way to convince people from arming themselves?

Listen to law enforcement? What if they refuse to talk like the most senior law enforcement officer in the land who we call the Attorney General who was just held in contempt of Congress regarding a total lack of gun control?

Jul. 25 2012 03:42 PM

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