By Jacob Sullum
Iowa is one of the relatively few states where local police still have wide discretion to decide who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon in public. In a vivid demonstration that such policies can have First as well as Second Amendment implications, a federal judge this week ruled that Osceola County Sheriff Douglas Weber violated a man's right to freedom of speech by denying him a carry permit based on his political activism.
Paul Dorr, well known locally for demonstrating at abortion clinics and agitating against government spending, 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 political activities, especially his attacks on excessive county spending and his inquiries about the sheriff department's budget:
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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....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 to issue Dorr a carry permit and 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 specific reasons for denying a permit application. Weirdness is not one of them.