The Republican Party hasn't been known for its sterling record on disability rights lately. Last December, 38 GOP senators memorably tanked the UN Convention on Persons With Disabilities over the pleading of former Senator Bob Dole, walking past his wheelchair to cast "no" votes and sparking widespread outrage among disability rights groups. In the past week, however, many disability groups have applauded an Iowa law allowing blind residents to carry concealed handguns, a rule change that has raised eyebrows from Iowa sheriffs to The Colbert Report.
The permits have been issued as an effect of 2011 conceal-and-carry legislation that made Iowa a "shall grant" state—"shall grant" being the legal equivalent of Heston's infamous "from my cold dead hands" in terms of who can be denied a permit by a state sheriff—a law that’s now getting national attention thanks to a report in the Des Moines Register. There are exactly six restrictions on who can and cannot get these permits. You can even complete the state certification online, leading some sheriffs to suggest that people could become licensed to carry concealed handguns even if they couldn’t see well enough to sign the application form without assistance. Excluding the blind from the "shall grant" legislation's broad language would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, says Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa. As a result, Iowans whose visual impairment legally rules out getting behind the wheel of a car are now being licensed to wield deadly weapons with fewer restrictions than ever before.
Iowa's "shall grant" conceal-and-carry law is one of many passed at the state and local level in recent years that have massively expanded the list of places where people may carry firearms openly or concealed. In Kansas, you can carry guns in schools. In Montana, you can legally buy a shotgun before graduating from 8th grade—their minimum age is 14. Under the "gun show loophole,” 30 states have zero age restrictions on buying guns from sellers operating legally without a federal license. Eight states allow conceal-and-carry in bars and Missouri even permits discharging a firearm while intoxicated, provided that the shooter is acting in self-defense. And for all the hoopla about Iowa, federal gun law has never prohibited the blind from gun ownership, as Stevie Wonder wryly pointed out.
The controversy over blind gun rights possesses an undoubtedly comical veneer. Talking heads at the non-Fox networks handled the issue with the sort of bewildered incredulity of people who aren't sure if maybe a prank is in the offing. Social media buzzed with shared links to the story captioned with every flavor of snark and exasperation. It didn't help that Michael Barber, president of the National Federation of the Blind, bequeathed the controversy this little gem: “When you shoot a gun, you take it out and point and shoot, and I don’t necessarily think eyesight is necessary.”
Commenting on the USA Today’s coverage of the legislation, Mike Weppner, a manufacturing supervisor from Sullivan, Missouri summed up the prevailing sentiment: "I'm what the liberals would call a rabid gun rights supporter and even I think this flies in the face of common sense and goes right into outright insanity. If you can't see than you shouldn't be shooting guns. Plain and simple. I guess this brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘a shot in the dark’."
Of course, like most viral media kerfuffles, there's a lot to this story that's overblown. For starters, legally blind Iowans have long been able to own and shoot firearms. The new law simply allows them to carry handguns in public. Counter to our cherished gun metaphors—"firing blindly" usually implies launching a random spray of bullets—visually impaired Americans have demonstrated surprising acuity when it comes to shooting a gun. Jim Miekka, a completely blind quick-draw enthusiast, reportedly shoots with 80 percent accuracy, far higher than many fully sighted people. John Flyum, a 95 percent blind resident of Sherman, Texas shoots in competition matches. Iowa Sheriff Warren Wethington, who has trained his blind daughter to operate a firearm, even suggested that the blind might be more responsible firearms operators because they would know to only shoot at very close targets, decreasing the likelihood of stray bullets wandering into other targets.
In short, blind people aren't the problem. It's not like all of a sudden there are going to be hordes of blind Iowans toting their Glocks to the local Starbucks. Only three legally blind Iowans have even applied for permits. Ryan Loken, a blind Arkansas resident who applied for a permit in 2009, even said that he would never actually carry a concealed weapon precisely because he wouldn't be able to read and honor the "No Firearms Allowed" signs on the doors of private establishments.
What's genuinely terrifying about "shall grant" laws is not that blind people can now carry guns anywhere, but that virtually anyone can carry guns anywhere. Of all the people who you don't want moseying around town with a concealed handgun, the blind, though perhaps an illustrative example, are by far the least of our worries. What this law reminds us is that, as virtually every study suggests, more people with more guns in more places means that sooner or later we are going to be mourning the victims of the next Newtown.
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