Phil Roe remembers the Friday night he heard a scratching on his apartment door. Someone had been casing the area for a couple weeks, and Roe sensed a stranger was about to break in.
He looked through the peephole and saw a man in a stocking cap with a gun. Roe opened the door, the would-be intruder saw that Roe had a gun of his own and left in a hurry.
Don’t tell Roe, a 56-year-old Cedar Falls engineer, that gun didn’t save his life.
Joyce Carman, 78, an Iowa City retiree, has a different take on guns. People have the right to use them to protect their homes, but she would have called the police.
“I wouldn’t have a gun in my home for that purpose because I would fear I would: one, perhaps mistake someone else for an intruder, or two, I would fear the intruder might be able to take my gun away from me,” Carman said.
Roe and Carman are typical of the deeply felt and sharply divergent views throughout this heartland state and others about guns, differences that illustrate why it’s so hard to find consensus. It’s why, when the Senate voted in April on whether to toughen background checks for gun buyers, senators in a dozen states split their votes.
Among them were Iowa’s Charles Grassley, a Republican, who opposed new restrictions, and Tom Harkin, a Democrat, who backed them. They represent the same people, and each has routinely been elected by big majorities. Each insists that he’s representing his constituents.
“My town hall meetings are 3-to-1 against compromising the Second Amendment,” Grassley said, “and people don’t like expanding background checks.”
But they do, countered Harkin.
“The average Iowan, when told about background checks, understands,” he said.
A February Iowa Poll illustrated the difficulty of pinning down voters’ feelings about guns: 53 percent thought Iowa’s gun laws were fine, while 41 percent saw a lack of effective laws as a major factor in gun violence.
But 88 percent backed tougher background checks for all gun sales, and 60 percent favored a ban on assault weapons.
“Any time you look at the gun question, the answer is, ‘It depends,’” said poll director Ann Selzer.
Just ask Roe and Carman.
Roe has been shooting since he was a child. It was as much a part of his life as baseball games and school.
Today, he hunts birds and occasionally deer. He got a concealed-carry permit after proper training and a background check. He has never fired a weapon in anger, but Roe can chillingly recall how simply having a gun may have saved his life.
Roe was working in Wyoming in 1985, driving to Denver down a deserted interstate highway around midnight. A station wagon came up quickly, cut in front of him and hit the brakes. Roe tried to get away, but it was clear someone was out to get him.
He pulled off the road and reached for the .44 Magnum he kept under his seat. Eight men wielding baseball bats emerged from the other car. Roe got out and propped himself on the hood.
“I yelled, ‘You better get back! I’m armed!’” Roe recalled saying.
His would-be assailants got back in their car and sped away.
“They may not have killed me,” he said, “but who knows what they were trying to do.”
Carman had never been a gun control activist. She retired in 1997 after a career teaching global studies and American history in junior high school. About four years ago, she became active in the fight to curb gun abuse.
What struck her were the kinds of shootings that were making headlines, such as the 1999 Columbine High School killings, or the November 1991 afternoon when a graduate student killed four professors and a research assistant at the University of Iowa.
“They were average citizens, going about doing what reasonable people do,” she said.
The massacre in December of 20 Connecticut schoolchildren was the last straw.
“It said to me, you can’t be quiet about this anymore,” she said.
So this spring, she starting writing to friends, urging action. Within four days, they organized a protest in downtown Iowa City. Carman said she has never owned or fired a gun, but she has little patience with arguments that restrictions like tougher background checks would infringe on the Second Amendment.
“I don’t want to take rifles away and I have friends who target shoot,” she said.
But Roe called it a remedy that won’t work.
“On paper, it sounds like everybody thinks this is the answer,” he scoffed. “All of the sudden you’re getting a record of who the ‘bad people’ are. First of all, you and I both know criminals do not obey the law. It’s fundamental to this whole argument. Violent criminals by and large don’t get their guns through legal channels. They steal them or get them through straw purchases, neither of which expanded background checks will stop.”
Despite the inability of gun control supporters to pass the latest attempt to impose restrictions, the debate is hardly over. But the attitudes of people like Roe and Carman are reminders why it’s going to be so difficult to move Congress on this issue.
“No law is perfect," Carman said, “but some are a step in the right direction.”
“Like everything with liberals,” Roe said, “there’s always a panacea. A fix that never works.”