Armed and Weird

Guns and free speech


Iowa is one of seven states where local police still have the discretion to decide who is allowed to carry a concealed handgun in public. In a vivid demonstration that such policies can have First as well as Second Amendment implications, a federal judge ruled in July that Osceola County Sheriff Douglas Weber violated a man's right to freedom of speech when he denied him a carry permit based on his political activism.

Paul Dorr, well known locally for demonstrating at abortion clinics and agitating against government spending, said he applied for a permit because he carries large amounts of cash as part of a balloon-selling business. Weber decided Dorr was too "weird" to carry a gun, although he had held a permit without any problems from the late 1990s until 2006. The sheriff put this notation on Dorr's rejected application: "Concern from Public. Don't trust him."

U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett concluded that the "concern" was related to Dorr's controversial speech, especially his attacks on excessive county spending, which included an inquiry about the salaries of Weber's deputies. "The court finds a tsunami, a maelstrom, an avalanche, of direct, uncontroverted evidence in Sheriff Weber's own testimony to conclude beyond all doubt that he unquestionably violated the First Amendment rights of…Paul Dorr," Bennett wrote. "This is a great reminder that the First Amendment protects the sole individual who may be a gadfly, kook, weirdo, nut job, whacko, and spook, with the same force of protection as folks with more majoritarian and popular views."

Bennett ordered Weber not just to issue Dorr a carry permit but to complete a court-approved course on the U.S. Constitution. The case has had broader consequences as well, spurring the state legislature to limit police discretion regarding carry permits. A new law that takes effect in January lists valid reasons for denying a permit application. Weirdness is not one of them.