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

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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.