Publication / The Daily Beast
September 10, 2013
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Iowa Debates Concealed-Carry Permits for the Blind

Disagreement between sheriffs ignited a delayed reaction to a 2011 Iowa law that allows the blind to get concealed-carry permits. Miranda Green on the debate.

In Iowa all residents have equal rights to bear arms under the Second Amendment—even those who are legally blind. All Iowans regardless of their level of sight, or lack thereof, are legally able to apply for a concealed-carry gun permit thanks to changes to a permitting law that passed relatively unnoticed in 2011. Previously visually impaired Iowans were able to own guns privately and even hunt, but the new permit keeps the state from denying a concealed-carry gun permit to a person based purely on their disability, and it is garnering mixed opinions.

Controversy over the law flared up this week after the Des Moines Register ran a long story on disagreement between Iowa sheriffs. Those in favor of the law say that keeping a blind person from carrying a gun purely due to their physical infirmity would be a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which expressly prohibits discrimination based on disability.

“We do not believe people should be prohibited from carrying guns solely based on their blindness,” said Chris Danielsen, spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind. “The same rules that apply to everybody else should apply to a blind person. A blind person is not incapable of using a gun. Obviously whether they should use a gun depends on the situation and they have to use their judgment, and that’s true of anybody.”

The NFB doesn’t expressly follow and advocate for the rights of blind gun owners in all 50 states, and it stops short of saying all blind persons seeking a concealed-carry permit should be offered one regardless of their disability. But Danielsen advocates for a system of more individualized rulings much like the treatment a person would get who is seeking a driver’s license.

It’s fairly common for many states to overlook proof of sight as a requirement for obtaining a concealed-carry gun permit.

“It’s too broad of a blanket policy that anyone who has a visual impairment cannot use a gun under any circumstance,” he said.

Gun safety activists, on the other hand, view the Iowa law, and others that allow a blind person to own, carry, and shoot a weapon, as an accident waiting to happen.

“Common sense makes it obvious that issuing a concealed-weapon permit to those that are blind will pose a threat to public safety,” said Juliet Leftwich, legal director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.”

Leftwich concedes that limiting a person from carrying a loaded gun based purely on their lack of sight may be an issue for disability advocates but it’s not a Second Amendment concern.

“Having a gun in public presents a huge threat to public safety that is not there when a person owns a gun in his and her home, and it’s a completely different right,” she said. “The Supreme Court made that clear in Heller when it said responsible, law-abiding people had the right to have a gun in the home for self-defense.” She said the law doesn’t extend to carrying a gun outside of the home.

It is unclear how many gun permits have been issued to visually impaired residents of Iowa because the state does not record that information. Iowa county sheriffs do reserve the right to deny a permit request if there is probable cause that the person would use the weapon in a way to endanger himself or others, but officials are unsure if a denial would stand up in court if it were to be appealed. This would likely be the case if the American With Disabilities Act were invoked.

It’s actually fairly common for many states to overlook proof of sight as a requirement for obtaining a concealed-carry gun permit. According to the databasecompiled by a majority of states do not explicitly ask for sight tests or letters from optometrists before issuing a concealed-carry permit to a resident. Nor is there any federal legislation that mentions the matter, including the Gun Control Act of 1968. Yet many states do mandate that a training class or proof of ability to handle a gun is necessary to receive a permit; many also require documented driver’s licenses. Wyoming’s law prohibits those without sight from carrying a gun in public. The state law bars giving gun permits to people with a “physical infirmity that inhibits safe handling.” Nebraska issues permits only to those who prove to have the same powers of sight as legally needed to own a driver’s license.

Second Amendment rights concerns are also largely among the conversation, as visually impaired people are allotted equal rights under the Constitution.