Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst last made the headlines of the gun control debate in August when she was confronted in Johnston by a teacher distraught over active shooter drills practiced in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not bring a bill to the Republican-controlled Senate that President Donald Trump does not support.
But what about Ernst? What will she support?
In February, the Democrat-controlled House passed House Resolution 8 to require background checks on all gun sales, but Trump has continued to waffle on what level of gun control he will support and the bill has stalled.
“While I will always carefully review any new proposal put forward, I do not believe stricter gun control for law-abiding citizens is the solution,” Ernst says on the Second Amendment section of her website. “Our efforts to prevent future tragedies must focus on enforcing current gun laws, community engagement, and advancing mental health treatment.”
At a town hall forum in Spirit Lake in late August, Ernst was quick to pivot to mental health concerns when asked by a high school student about school shootings.
“It comes down to mental health, as well. It does,” she said, after mentioning she had voted for legislation for an anonymous tip line on potential school shooters.
Moms Demand Action and Everytown For Gun Safety have been active on social media encouraging their supporters to contact senators and “demand that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and your U.S. senators pass background checks and a strong Red Flag Law that will help prevent gun violence tragedies.”
In Iowa, activists also have taken up a #GroceriesNotGuns campaign, in response to Hy-Vee’s policy of allowing customers to openly carry firearms in their stores.
“Gustafson's family owns guns, she said, but she doesn’t feel safe if people around her are openly carrying firearms. She said she would be too concerned for the safety of her children to approach a manager with her concerns.” #GroceriesNotGuns https://t.co/9QUoGPgpPx
— Amber Gustafson (@AmberForIowa) September 14, 2019
“We did have several volunteers attend Sen. Ernst’s town hall to ask questions about gun violence prevention and try to understand better why she may not be willing to take action,” said Traci Kennedy, a Moms Demand Action volunteer from West Des Moines. “We’ve also been talking with the senator about renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and ensuring that now is the time to close the ‘boyfriend loophole.’ I feel like we’re keeping the heat up.”
For Kennedy, a gun owner who grew up in rural Missouri, she viewed universal background checks and red flag laws as nonpartisan solutions to help curb the gun violence epidemic in America.
“I think that red flag laws are the compliment to background checks, and now is the time,” said Kennedy, of the proposal to temporarily take guns away from people considered a danger to themselves or others. “I think it’s a cop-out, quite frankly, to say that red flag laws aren’t protecting the 2nd Amendment and can’t coexist. I think they’re meant to really benefit one another.”
An Everytown/Global Strategy Group poll conducted prior to the September mass shooting in West Texas found 92% support for background checks and 74% support for red flag laws among voters “who say they are definitely, or leaning towards, voting for Donald Trump in 2020.”
Nationwide, the poll found 95% of voters support background checks and 85% are in favor of red flag laws.
In 2019, Ernst has co-sponsored two bills related to gun rights, both aimed at loosening gun laws and making it harder to track who has weapons: the “Gun-owner Registration Information Protection Act” [GRIP Act] and the “Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.”
The GRIP Act, endorsed by the National Rifle Association, clarifies an existing law prohibiting the use of federal funding by states or local entities to list or store “sensitive, personal information related to the legal ownership or possession of firearms.”
Ernst said the bill was intended to “help ensure that gun owners are not unlawfully tracked by any government.”
The reciprocity bill allows citizens with concealed carry permits to keep their weapons in states that also allow concealed carry.
At the Johnston town hall, Ernst raised concerns about due process rights and red flag laws.
“I am a proud supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and there are reasonable lines that can be drawn, and we do have laws that are in place right now that do limit who can own what type of weapon,” Ernst said, on August 17. “So, those laws do need to be enforced. My rights as a law-abiding citizen should not be infringed upon by our federal government.”
On Tuesday night, multiple Democratic senators used their time on the floor to put pressure on McConnell and their Republican colleagues to begin debate on gun safety legislation.
Among them was New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently ended her 2020 presidential run.
“Every day that the Senate Republican leaders refuse to act, they are making a choice to be complicit as more lives continue to be lost,” said Gillibrand, who called for a ban on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines during her campaign. “People across my state and the country want to see action, and they’re tired of waiting for it.”
Ernst, vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, making her the chamber’s fifth-highest ranking Republican, has largely been silent on the issue since returning to D.C. after the August recess.
“We’re not a multi-million dollar political machine,” Kennedy said. “We’re just everyday moms who are tired of having to worry when we drop off our kids at school if they’re going to be safe or not.
“I think it’s time that they face the facts and have to feel that pressure, that while everyday we’re wondering if our kids are going to be safe at school, they’re worried about whether the NRA is going to cut them their next check, and that seems grossly unfair.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Julie Fleming