Controversial Iowa Law Raises Questions Over Gun Permits for the Blind

An Iowa gun law stirs up debate over gun permits for the visually impaired.

Sept. 9, 2013— -- An Iowa law allowing the legally or completely blind to acquire permits to carry guns in public has stirred up debate as to whether or not the visually impaired should have "full access" to firearms.

"Up until 2011, it was solely up to the sheriff of your county who decided who got a gun permit and who did not," Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington, who has been granting gun permits to the visually impaired since he became sheriff in 2007, told "So you were basically at the mercy of whether you had a pro-gun sheriff or an anti-gun sheriff."

In 2010, Iowa became a "shall-issue" state when the legislature amended a law to create a uniform procedure for issuing gun permits statewide. As a result, Iowa residents could get a gun permit so long as they did not have a criminal background or history of mental illness, Wethington said.

"Once those restrictions were limited, we basically had to approve anybody who applied for a permit," said Delaware County Sheriff John LeClere. "Our opinion no longer matters and our information on an individual, as far as their character, was something we could no longer consider."

While applicants need to take a firearm safety course to obtain a permit, it is available online and does not need to include hands-on firearms training, which "makes it a little difficult," LeClere said.

"If we have a person who is possibly eyesight impaired, he is certainly entitled to defend himself," he said. "But should he be carrying [a firearm] in public? Should there be further restrictions placed on him based on eyesight?"

"I have some reservations about full access for people who are blind," said Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa. "That's just because shooting requires a lot of vision to be accurate outside of controlled settings with safety courses."

Still, advocates for the blind say the law squares away with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the same restrictions that apply to sighted people should also apply to the blind when it comes to guns.

"We don't believe there should be a blanket prohibition on blind people owning or carrying guns," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "It's certainly true that the blind person or visually impaired person needs to be cautious about using a firearm, but so does everybody else."

Danielsen said the issue of whether or not to use a gun is primarily an issue of common sense, not sight. "The important thing for people to realize is that our judgment is not impaired," he said.

"A visually impaired person, in my opinion, is more entitled for a permit to carry, just for the sheer fact that they don't pick up on the cues that a sighted person would have," said Wethington, who has a daughter who is legally blind.

Wethington said there is no reason why someone who is blind, if properly trained, can't operate or use a handgun or any weapon just as safely as any person who isn't visually impaired.

"I have a permit to carry. It doesn't restrict me in times of low vision. My permit is still good in heavy fog, it's good in low light, it's good anytime that my vision is obstructed," he said. "If I'm in a room that is low light or total darkness, my permit is still valid, even if I can't see better than a totally blind person."

"People with disabilities are just as much citizens as you and I are. Just because they can't see doesn't mean we should be able to pick and choose what rights they enjoy," Wethington said.

State gun laws in Wisconsin match Iowa's when it comes to the lack of vision requirements necessary to be approved for a gun permit, the Des Moines Register reported. Other states, such as Missouri and Minnesota, require applicants to shoot and hit a target.

And some states have specific vision requirements for gun permits.

In Nebraska, residents need to provide a current state driver's license or note from a licensed ophthalmologist or optometrist that states the person meets the vision requirements, according to the Nebraska State Patrol website. The same rule applies in South Carolina, according to the Des Moines Register.