Iowa law limits kids' handgun access, irks gun advocates

JOHNSTON, Iowa — An Iowa dad wants his young daughters to be able to shoot handguns when he's supervising, but state law won't allow it.

On Saturday, Nathan Gibson of Johnston and his 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, were politely told to leave a Polk City, Iowa, shooting range because the girl isn't old enough to practice with a Walther P22 handgun she has been shooting since age 5.

Anyone 20 or younger must be under the direct supervision of a parent or instructor to practice with a pistol or revolver, according to Iowa Code. Youths younger than 14 can't use a handgun at all, even with supervision.

Natalie was in tears after they packed up their gear and drove away from the gun range Saturday, Gibson said.

"She was upset because she thought she did something wrong," he said. "I had to explain to both my daughters what had happened and why."

Gibson, an information security engineer, has been taking daughters Meredith, 10, and Natalie and to shooting ranges since they were 5 and gradually teaching them how to tag along on hunting trips. His usual shooting range didn't know about the law until recently.

The Iowa law barring any handgun use by youths younger than 14 gained attention earlier this year when a Democratic legislator tried to lower the legal age from 14 to 12.

State law provides no minimum age for long guns. The rationale has been that long guns are used for hunting, and any child should be able to hunt with supervision from a parent.

The bill's intent was to allow more Iowa kids to safely practice shooting handguns, but the effort backfired. It became mired in controversy and failed to become law.

Because of the publicity, more gun ranges are enforcing the existing law. No one representing the Polk City range could be reached for comment.

"It's unfortunate," said the bill's author, state Rep. Joe Riding, an Altoona Democrat who taught his own daughter to shoot when she was 9. "If a parent wants to involve their youngster in an activity they love, there's no reason why they should not involve their 6-year-old daughter or their 9- or 10-year-old daughter."

On weekends at the gun range, Gibson's girls had put on their safety eyewear and electronic hearing protection ear muffs to take turns with a .22 pistol as their dad stood behind them, focused on every movement, Gibson said.

Gibson has contacted local and state officials about his belief that his daughters should be able to use handguns under his supervision. Natalie and Meredith have posted videos on YouTube advocating the same thing.

The Iowa Gun Owners organization plans Wednesday to publicize the videos as part of its effort to build support for eliminating age restrictions altogether for youths using handguns under a parent's supervision.

Other Iowans say it's a good thing to keep children away from gun ranges.

Kathleen Adams, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines who specializes in children and adolescents, said she would be less concerned if the issue were simply about target practice or hunting with a parent.

But handguns are not about hunting. They're about personal safety, Adams said.

Teaching kids handgun shooting implies some time might be appropriate for them to use the gun in a situation they perceive as dangerous with or without supervision, she said.

"We should teach them ways to solve conflicts that don't involve guns," said Adams, who voiced her objections to House File 2012 during a hearing at the Iowa Capitol in January. "And it's really important for kids to have confidence that their world is safe and that the adults in their world are going to keep them safe."

Gibson said his girls are into dance, cheerleading, softball and basketball, and he does those activities with them, too, even jokingly practicing round-off cartwheels.

But shooting is a big part of their father-daughter time, he said.

"Each kid is different in terms of their development and what they can and can't handle and the culture in a family and whether guns are part of that culture," said Chief Executive Anne Starr of Orchard Place, a Des Moines psychiatric medical institute for youths ages 10 to 17. But she generally thinks limiting kids' access to guns is a good thing.

Riding said the bill to lower the age allowing supervised handgun use would have passed as written, but the Iowa Gun Owners wanted to remove age restrictions totally.

Aaron Dorr, executive director of Iowa Gun Owners, offers no apologies.

"The real sad thing for us is more and more kids are now being kicked off gun ranges like the Gibson kids," Dorr said. "But it's a simple fix. Take out the age restriction."

Parents know best when their children are able to shoot a gun, he said.

"Any father would be wise to show his daughter how to defend herself," Dorr said.

As Gibson's daughters showed interest in his hunting trips, Gibson said he allowed them to walk behind him carrying a BB gun so they could get a feel for safety and the hunting environment.

"You teach them guns are a tool just like anything else," he said. "I'm not a revolutionary guy. I'm not trying to overthrow the government. But I'm trying to teach them that guns have a purpose, and why they're important."


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