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"Bureaucratic oversight" derails gun-rights amendment to Iowa Constitution

Iowa's top elections official acknowledged Monday that his office mistakenly derailed a long-sought plan to grant residents more expansive gun rights by forgetting to notify the public of the proposed constitutional amendment, as required. Secretary of State Paul Pate cited a "bureaucratic oversight" for his office's failure to publish notice of the proposed amendment in newspapers before the November election, as required by the Iowa Constitution.

The mistake means supporters likely will have to restart the lengthy process for amending the state constitution and that the earliest the measure could be voted on in a statewide referendum would 2022, instead of 2020. The plan likely would be blocked if Democrats gain control of either legislative chamber before then.

"It's really unfortunate," Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said, according to the Des Moines Register. Other supporters reacted with fury to the oversight by Pate, a Republican and lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who supported the proposed amendment.

They said they would review any legal options for seeking to fix the error but acknowledged that they would likely have to start again from scratch. "The amendment has been a priority for over a decade now and yes, this may be a monumental setback, but we will continue to press forward and try and get this on the ballot," said state Rep. Matt Windschitl, a Republican sponsor of the proposed amendment who noted that his initial reaction to the oversight "wouldn't be publishable."

Iowa's Republican-controlled General Assembly voted last spring to approve a resolution to amend the state constitution to declare that the "right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The amendment would require any restrictions on that right to be subject to "strict scrutiny," a stringent standard for judicial review.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate collects ballots during Iowa's Electoral College vote at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, Dec. 19, 2016.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate collects ballots during Iowa's Electoral College vote at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, Dec. 19, 2016. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Supporters said the language is necessary to protect Iowa gun owners from onerous restrictions passed by local, state or federal lawmakers. The measure was among the few major pieces of gun rights legislation approved by states last year after the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, that led to calls for stricter gun controls.

Critics warned that the Iowa amendment would mean that future gun safety laws — and possibly current restrictions — would be blocked in court. Iowa constitutional amendments must be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions and then by a majority of voters.

Amendment supporters had been planning to approve the measure again this session so that it could be on the 2020 ballot. But the constitution also requires that any amendment be published for three consecutive months before the election in which voters decide who represents them during the second legislative session.

That requirement falls to the secretary of state. Pate apologized for failing to publish notice of the gun resolution and another that would change how the lieutenant governor is selected when the governor leaves office.

"I accept full responsibility for this oversight and offer my sincerest apology to the legislators and supporters who worked so hard on these bills," Pate said. "There is no excuse and I am instituting a system that will ensure an error like this never happens again."

Pate had promised members of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, which lobbied for the amendment, during a 2017 speech that he would "be right there with you making sure that your voice is going to be heard." He said he enjoyed the ability to hunt and shoot with his grandchildren and that "I don't think I'm going to let anybody, if I have anything to say about it, take it away from me."

The group backed Pate in its 2018 voter guide, giving him an "A" grade. He won re-election by defeating Democrat Deidre DeJear.

Iowa Firearms Coalition President Kurt Liske told members Sunday that they had been "wronged" by Pate after working to pass the amendment for years. "Knowing all of that has been undone due to a technicality and an elected official's failure to act makes me sick and that is why I've chosen to share this information as soon as possible," he wrote.

Liske said he bears some responsibility for failing to check with Pate to ensure the notices were published but that he took it "for granted" given Pate's support.

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