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Gun ban discussion draws crowd in NL

The North Liberty City Council meeting of Nov. 24 drew a standing-room-only crowd as the council reviewed its policies governing weapons on city-owned property. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty Mayor Amy Nielsen has learned that gun ownership is a touchy subject.
Discussion on city policy regarding firearms on public property brought citizens out in force at the North Liberty City Council meeting Nov. 24, resulting in expulsion of one individual and a backlash of criticism prior to the meeting and in the days to follow.
A standing-room only crowd took the opportunity at the meeting’s public comment portion to speak against banning firearms on city-owned property, even though the council had no plans to take action to do so. The city council considered a firearms ban on public property in 2013, and the proposal was voted down, 2-3.
According to North Liberty Community Library Board of Trustees member Barbara Beaumont, the issue was brought before the council again because the library board recently reviewed its policies and discovered a discrepancy: while library policy states that weapons are not allowed on the premises, the City of North Liberty has no ordinance to that effect.
“We need to have you explore it and tell us what to do,” Beaumont told the council. “Our concern is that people should feel safe in the library.”
Beaumont stated that, as a regular user of the recreation facility, she felt insecure without a written policy on weapons.
“We have lots of children attending lots of programs in the library. It’s kind of scary to think that someone might be working out, and put their gun in a locker,” said Beaumont. “There are kids messing around the lockers all the time. One would presume people would lock up their weapons, but people don’t seem to lock their lockers.”
Discussion at the library level prompted the North Liberty Parks and Recreation Board to review it as well, since the library and the recreation program share the facility at 520 W. Cherry St. However, only the city council has authority to create a firearms ban, and therefore, both boards sought clarification and consistent application of the policy.
Last week, prior to public comment, Mayor Amy Nielsen laid a few ground rules for the standing-room-only audience, stating city officials had received more than 300 messages on the topic, “some of which were completely inappropriate and foul,” she said.
After the meeting, Nielsen described in more detail the communications she received from gun advocates prior to the meeting.
“Around noon on Monday, Nov 23, I started receiving phone calls and emails from people regarding the weapons discussion item on our Nov. 24 city council agenda. Most people seemed to be very misinformed about what was happening. The majority of the messages were short, simply saying ‘vote no’ or reciting the Iowa Code section 724.28,” Nielsen said. However, Nielsen also became the target of several emails, phone calls and Facebook posts that contained threatening overtones.
“They were not only unpleasant, they were laced with foul language and references to my personal safety. In addition, many posts were made to the Facebook page Iowa Gun Owners that were very unsettling,” Nielsen continued.
One voicemail began, “Hey, this is about the gun ban, you dumb b**tch. If you don’t like guns, go live in England… because that’s just retarded.” The same man emailed Nielsen and wrote “Your (sic) gonna wish u had a gun when criminals find out u can’t have one. Have fun getting shot because now only police can have them dumbass!” Another man who left a voice mail said, “You think the people who are angry with you now are angry? You are discriminating against people’s rights. You better get a lawyer, Amy, and you better get a good one. You’re gonna need it, real soon.” Another email to Nielsen said, “One things (sic) for sure, you have your head up your ass. You serve the people and its (sic) very obvious that you don’t care what your voter’s (sic) want …way to be a radical idiot.” Another email sender attached a YouTube video of an actual shooting at a council meeting, although that video has since been removed from YouTube.
Similarly, Nielsen said, several Facebook posts were removed after she mentioned feeling threatened by some of the contents.
The events prior to the Tuesday council meeting led Nielsen to be strident in preserving decorum at the meeting, she said, and that’s why she opened public comment with these remarks:
“If there is any disruption from the audience that impedes this (discussion), you will be asked to leave,” said Nielsen. “You are welcome to address the council, but if any behavior or language is foul, derogatory or threatening, you will be asked to leave.”
Fourteen people spoke at the podium. In addition to North Liberty residents, others came from the communities of Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Keokuk. All speakers maintained civility, and each message was consistently against a firearms ban.
“I have a right to life and a right to defend myself,” said Shawn Davidson. “I don’t believe that should be suspended when I step foot on city property. I don’t feel like an ordinance satisfies the right for people to protect themselves and it doesn’t completely solve the problem.”
Several speakers said most mass shootings occur in weapons-free zones, implying that citizens with legal permits carry concealed weapons could effectively take down a shooter in those instances.
“I am opposed and appalled that you would consider this ban,” said Kurt Hanson of Prospect Court. “We haven’t had any issues. This law makes everything easier for the criminal or terrorist. Ninety-eight percent of mass attacks happen in gun free zones. I strongly urge you to please reconsider.”
While a few speakers pointed to violence and terrorist acts in international locations including a Nov. 13 attack in Paris, Aaron Dorr of the Iowa Gun Owners gun lobby organization spoke of a local incident to make the same point.
“Just four-and-a-half miles from here, a guy walks into the Coralville mall, which is covered in ‘no guns allowed’ signs,” Dorr said, referring to the shooting at Coral Ridge in June that took the life of Andrea Farrington. “He walked right inside and shot a woman three times in the back of head and killed her. He was able to do so in part because the mall decided that law-abiding citizens did not have means of self-defense available to them. In that case, the mall decided to disarm the good guys and empower the bad guys. Keep in mind, there are real lives at stake here.”
A few residents asked if incidents involving legally-permitted firearms had caused concerns for North Liberty law enforcement.
“Why is the city discussing it?” asked resident Steve Sherman. “Out of fear for people at the library? People have been carrying in this town for years and walk amongst the populace all the time. Is there a reason for us to be afraid and take away rights that are given to us by the state and the Constitution? I’d love to hear that answer before you pass this.”
Passing anything was not on the agenda, but there was time for council members to discuss the issue later in the meeting, ask questions of City Attorney Scott Peterson and state their current positions on a firearms ban.
Councilor Terry Donahue was the first to do so, saying that posting signs would do nothing to deter someone carrying a gun with bad intentions.
“I voted against this in 2013 and I’ll vote against it again,” Donahue said. “A decal on a door will not prevent a problem from happening. Are you going to put in metal detecting machines? Because that is the only way you are really going to prevent something from happening.” He suggested better measures would be to make sure city staff are trained to respond to a shooting incident and installing physical barriers that would buy time for police to respond to a crisis. A written policy, he said, simply instills a false sense of security.
Council member Brian Wayson said he also voted against a gun ban in 2013 because he didn’t feel it was a good policy then, and still does not. However, Wayson added, there is a legitimate concern about what staff members should do if someone walks into the facility carrying a weapon.
“It is not the library staff’s job to figure that out. We need to give them some type of guideline of what they can and can’t do,” Wayson said. He suggested creating a protocol that any time staff members see someone carrying a weapon, they call the police.
“Police officers can come and talk to them. Ninety-nine percent of people are probably just fine,” said Wayson. “This way we’re not banning anything, people can act responsibly, staff have their policy with exactly what they are going to do, and it’s enforced equally. If someone chooses to carry openly, they get to meet one of our nice police officers.”
Questions arose about the legality of enforcing such a policy, and there was uncertainty of related state laws defining areas within 1,000 feet of public parks as weapons-free zones, since a park is located just outside the library doors. Council member Coleen Chipman said she wanted more input from North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga, and councilor Annie Pollock felt more research on gun regulations was necessary. “We seem to have a lot of mixed messages,” said Pollock. “I would like to explore the 1,000 foot-rule with the park outside the library. And there are lots of different (reports on) percentages of attacks that happen in gun-free zones. Google it and (you find) different percentages.”
Pollock said either way, it was incumbent on the council to clarify its policy on weapons on city property and give direction to the library and parks boards and staff.
“Our due diligence as a council, to serve the citizens of the community, is to do something about it,” Pollock said. “Regardless of what we do, training needs to happen.”
During council members’ comments, a man in the audience inquired if he could ask a procedural question. Mayor Nielsen responded no, but the man asked again when the public would be allowed to comment. Nielsen explained public comment was over, and the man persisted.
“I would like to know when we, as citizens, have a right to say something. That’s all I wanted to know,” the man said.
That’s when Nielsen directed Chief of Venenga to escort the man from the chambers, and the man left without further incident.
However, Nielsen’s directive became the subject of subsequent criticism on the city’s Facebook page, some posters calling for citizens to vote her out of office.
Nielsen explained her reaction in an email earlier this week.
“I had no way of knowing what kind of question the gentleman wanted to ask during the meeting on Nov. 24. What I did know was that I had a room full of people who were part of a group that had been bombarding me with messages for the past 30 hours (even at 2 a.m.); that I was responsible for the management of that crowd; and that speaking from the audience without being acknowledged is not allowed in a public meeting. My decision to ask that the gentleman be removed was made after I told him that he could not ask a question at that time, that the time for public comment had passed, and he still persisted to speak out. I have since spoken to him, heard his concerns, explained why he was asked to leave, and gave him the date and time of our next meeting.”
Further discussion is expected to take place at the council’s Dec. 8 meeting, scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.