The first day of Iowa’s 2024 legislative session began Monday with moments of silence for victims of last week’s deadly shooting at Perry High School, and ended with a rally by hundreds of high school students calling on lawmakers to address gun violence.
Protest organizers with March for Our Lives Iowa said the death of 11-year-old Ahmir Jolliff in last week’s shooting should be a wakeup call for legislators.
“Gun violence has become normalized in our country. Students living in fear has become normalized,” said Johnston High School senior, Akshara Eswar. “I should not have to be worried every time we have a fire drill or assembly. I should not have to live in a world where I am more likely to die by gunshot than any other thing.”
The shooting in Perry came nearly a year after a deadly shooting at Starts Right Here, a Des Moines alternative high school program, and a drive-by shooting at Des Moines East High School that killed one student and injured two others in March 2022.
Samuel Sarmiento-Castaneda, a senior at East High, said school violence creates stress for students and their families.
“When both of those shootings happened my mom was very worried,” Sarmiento-Castaneda said. “She didn’t want me to go back to school. She just wanted me to be very, very careful. She wanted me to keep my eyes open all the time, just be very aware, and I feel like that’s not something students should do at school. I feel like that’s not something students should worry about.”
Two days before the Perry shooting, the leaders of March For Our Lives Iowa held a news conference where they called on lawmakers to pass three new gun laws.
One would allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, the second would close loopholes to make sure domestic abusers can’t have a gun, and the third would require Iowans to report lost or stolen firearms to police.
March for Our Lives Iowa legislative director Trey Jackson repeated those demands at Monday’s rally.
“Iowans have had enough of prayers. We need action,” Jackson said. “You, Gov. Reynolds, have the power to create meaningful change. You have the power to save more lives from being senselessly stolen in this state.”
After opening the legislative session by offering their condolences to those affected by the Perry shooting, Republican legislative leaders did not commit to tightening gun laws.
On IPR’s River to River, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he is willing to look at student gun safety advocates’ proposals.
But he said expanding gun rights has been House Republicans’ driving principle.
“At the end of the day, I think that our caucus has to also weigh, you know, what the rights of Iowans are, as well,” Grassley said. “And so that’s part of–that’s been lost in the conversation.”
Grassley said he wants to focus on enhancing school security and protecting children’s mental health. He did not commit to boosting children’s mental health funding Monday, saying the shortage of mental health workforce needs to be addressed.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said he is still gathering more information about the Perry shooting.
“I think you have to step back and take a look at what is the reason this happened in Iowa,” he said. “What is the reason—we’ve now had a couple of school shootings over the last couple of years—and look at the reasons why it’s happening before you just rush to judgment on any bill we might pass or any policy change you might do.”
Whitver said he doesn’t know if the Senate will take up a House bill from last yearthat would allow Iowans to have a handgun in their car while driving on school property.
The GOP majority in recent years eliminated the requirement to get a handgun permit and prevented local governments from restricting firearm accessories.
Democratic leaders are calling for gun control measures in the wake of the Perry shooting.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said it will take a holistic approach to prevent more school shootings in Iowa.
“But what I’m hearing from my colleagues across the aisle is they’re willing to look at every issue but firearms,” she said. “And I just think that’s too short-sighted.”
Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said she thinks Iowans want more gun safety laws.
“Certainly this is a call to action now,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of condolences, thoughts, prayers, all of which are appropriate. But we’ve been doing that for a long time. And it has not tamed the violence that we continue to see.”
Jochum also said she thinks many voters didn’t fully understand the level of legal protection they were giving gun rights when they voted to add gun rights to the Iowa Constitution in 2022.
But she said she thinks new gun control measures would still be able to survive legal challenges.