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Matt Windschitl
Matt Windschitl (COURTESY PHOTO)

DES MOINES --- Matt Windschitl turned a half-swivel in his chair and stuck his right hand out, stopping Chris Rager, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

Windschitl, 28, is a member of the House Republican leadership team from Missouri Valley. He had just watched his "stand your ground" bill sail through committee.

"This," Windschitl said as Rager shook his hand, "is just the start."

The bill would allow Iowans to respond with deadly force if they feel threatened and would offer protection from liability in some cases.

This session, Windschitl also has proposed legislation that makes it a crime for local governments to ban firearms from public buildings, such as a city hall or a county courthouse, lifts the firearm prohibition on the Iowa State Fairgrounds and adds wording to the Iowa Constitution that would make it more difficult to place restrictions on firearm ownership, transportation and use.

Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the House, but in the Senate, Democrats have a 26-24 edge. Key senators say firearm legislation pushed now in the House won't ever make it to a vote in committee in the Senate.

"Our position is we are not doing any of those bills. We don't think they're good policy," said Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Senate Democrats have a consistent, unrelenting focus on jobs, the economy, education and training, and that's where we're focused on, and we're not going to get into a gun rights sideshow."

Legislation can, however, move to the floor without going through committee if a majority of senators vote to do so. That's where Windschitl sees an opening.

Gun issues play reasonably well across party lines in Iowa. Take, for example, the "shall issue" bill that took discretion away from sheriffs in issuing gun permits in 2010. The House went 81-16 and the Senate 44-4 in favor. Both had Democratic majorities at the time.

Plus, it's an election year and a special one at that. Because of census redistricting, every legislator will have at least some new constituents and they may want to show their pro-Second Amendment bona fides.

"We've had some conversations with some pro-Second Amendment Democrats," Windschitl said. "The Judiciary Committee is one committee."

The legislation that's caught a lot of attention this session is the pre-emption bill. It says that the state has the sole authority to regulate firearms, so ordinances by cities, counties and other political subdivisions are illegal.

Critics allege pre-emption is an overreach by the state. They say public safety and weapons bans are a local control issue. Proponents counter a local ordinance doesn't trump the U.S. Constitution.

Waterloo passed a ban on weapons in city buildings after concealed carry passed, Mayor Buck Clark said. He said there haven't been any problems with weapons being brought places where they're banned, but he noted most people can't get into the Capitol with a firearm.

"How are we going to be able to control our own destiny in these buildings?" he said. "In this building behind us (the Capitol), are they going to disallow that? You can't carry a gun in there. There's terrible irony there."

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Windschitl thinks pre-emption should include all state buildings.

"We allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights, we should allow them to exercise their Second Amendment rights," he said. "I have legislation to lift the administrative rule that prohibits firearms on state grounds, but I haven't filed it yet ... Sometimes we have to take this process in steps."

Craig Robinson, editor of the influential Iowa Republican website, said moving this wide-reaching legislation in an election year is a shrewd political move.

"The gun lobby in Iowa is very strong," he said. "There are a lot of Democrats, especially those in rural areas who want to be seen as pro-gun."

Sens. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa, and Steven Sodders, D-State Center, are two pro-gun Democrats whose rural districts are considered "in play" by Republicans.

Rielly, who already is taking a risky political position by coming out --- albeit cautiously --- for a gas tax increase, might feel pressure to make amends by taking up the NRA-backed firearms bills.

"I respect the committee process and the decisions by the Judiciary Committee, just as, I think, (the other senators) respect what I do in my committee," he said.

Rielly is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Chris Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said the gun lobby might not be all it's cracked up to be in the state. He thinks it's a second-tier lobby that doesn't have the political muscle of such organizations as the Iowa Farm Bureau or the various education lobbies.

"If you think about states with powerful gun lobbies, they tend to be those in which electorate has a strong or has had a strong anti-government bent, more traditional political cultures to borrow from Daniel Elazar's classic work on political culture," he wrote in an email.

"The political culture of Iowa, at least recently, has never really been anti-government --- the majority of Iowans see some role for government in terms of regulating society, thus completely eliminating gun restrictions would run counter to the majority preference of Iowa voters," Larimer added.

Windschitl said he will continue to push greater access to firearms for law-abiding Iowans.

"People don't understand why our founding fathers recognized that the Second Amendment is a fundamental right. There are people who are out there that believe the Second Amendment was written to protect our hunting rights or to have a militia," he said.

"I believe our Second Amendment right was written to protect us from a tyrannical government, to give us the opportunity to protect ourselves and our homes."

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