DUBUQUE, IA. (Des Moines Register) -- Joshua Duehr is one of more than 50 sex offenders in Iowa who can carry a gun in public.
"I don't leave the house without one," said Duehr, who lives in Dubuque.
It's legal and it's news that has surprised some state lawmakers and alarmed a few Iowa and national law enforcement officers.
An FBI official, the president of the Iowa State Sheriffs' & Deputies' Association, the president of the Iowa State Police Association and two state lawmakers told The Des Moines Register they have public safety concerns after learning that a two-year-old state law on gun permits allows registered sex offenders to obtain a weapons permit.
"It does seem to go contrary to what the whole point or the whole purpose" of the sex offender registry is, said Steve Conlon, the deputy unit chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit's Evil Minds Research Museum in Quantico, Va.
Conlon, a former assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation who previously oversaw the state's sex offender registry, said he will confer with other law enforcement officials on this issue.
"I've never even heard of anybody looking into this arena," Conlon said. "You're in some unchartered grounds."
Some, if not most, applications by sex offenders for permits to carry weapons would have been denied by county sheriffs before 2011, according to officials from the Iowa Department of Public Safety. But under a two-year-old state law, sheriffs no longer have discretion to reject such applications.
The law change means people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes can now walk the streets, malls or virtually any public place in the state while carrying a gun. Almost all of the sex offenders on the Register's list were convicted of misdemeanors such as lascivious conduct with a minor or assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.
But the Register found three men convicted of felony sex crimes who had permits to carry weapons in public. Two of those men had their permits revoked by sheriffs after the Register asked about their situations.
"My concern of a sex offender having a gun is they try to typically rule in a bullish way to influence people and just the presence of a gun on a hip could be a threat to get people to cooperate," said Washington County Sheriff Jerry Dunbar, who is president of the Iowa State Sheriffs' & Deputies' Association.
"They intimidate to get what they want."
Some sheriffs were aware that sex offenders are carrying weapons in public, primarily because they issue the permits and have firsthand knowledge about the issue.
But other professionals in Iowa's law enforcement community were caught off guard.
Rob Burdess, a Newton police detective and the president of the Iowa State Police Association, was unaware that sex offenders are being issued weapon permits until he was asked about it by the Register.
He noted that people with felonies or domestic abuse convictions are typically unable to obtain weapon permits, so he questions the logic of allowing sex offenders even those convicted of non-felony offenses to carry weapons in public.
"If they're on the sex offender registry, they're already a safety concern in one aspect," Burdess said. "Who's to say they're not a safety concern with weapons? They've already shown propensity to be sexually violent, so the escalation can be the use of weapons."
Laws, opinions vary on armed offenders
If it surprises an FBI official to learn that sex offenders can be armed, it may be because there is no national data on how many weapons permits are being issued to convicted offenders, according to Fred Wilson, a National Sheriffs' Association spokesman.
Wilson said he was unaware of sex offenders being issued permits in any state until he was contacted by the Register.
However, a review of states surrounding Iowa found that some sex offenders can obtain permits to carry weapons even though authorities said they aren't aware of a large number being issued. Those states including Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin have laws similar to Iowa's that do not specifically exclude sex offenders from obtaining such permits.
Minnesota law, however, makes it a misdemeanor for a person required to register as a sex offender to carry a handgun.
Just as state laws vary, so do opinions about whether armed sex offenders inherently pose more of a risk than other citizens.
Sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, according to legislative testimony given in multiple states by Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida. She is frequently recognized as a national expert on sexual violence.
Levenson, citing more than three dozen research studies or articles, has written papers and given testimony that shows 5 to 14 percent of known sex offenders will commit a subsequent sex crime within three to six years after incarceration. That is far lower than rates for other types of crime.
She has concluded that laws such as the Adam Walsh Act, which organizes sex offenders into tiers and mandates frequent sex offender registry updates, are "not empirically grounded" and are "unlikely to correctly classify risk."
There are no known studies that review the rates of crimes using guns committed by sex offenders after their initial convictions, according to Conlon of the FBI and researchers at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. That information would be useful in assessing the level of risk created by giving gun permits to sex offenders, Conlon said.
National uniform crime data from 2006 the most recent data available show that about half of all reported sex offenses included a weapon of some form (including the use of fists) but less than 1 percent of all reported sex offenses included the use of a firearm, according to Jason Rydberg, a graduate student at Michigan State.
Iowa numbers mirror the national trend. Of the roughly 5,750 people on Iowa's sex offender registry, 47 or less than 1 percent used guns in their crimes, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
State law enforcement officials do not check to see if sex offenders who previously used weapons to commit their crimes now have carry permits because it's not one of the checks they are required to make under Iowa law.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization focused on the prevention of sexual abuse, generally advocates for cases to be reviewed individually when assessing if a sex offender is likely to reoffend or jeopardize public safety.
"There's no blanket way of stating that sex offenders are more dangerous than everybody else," said Maia Christopher, executive director of the association.
Iowa Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield and a former state trooper, isn't reassured by the type of research offered by Levenson or groups like the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Until he was contacted for this article, Baudler was unaware that the new gun permit law he advocated for in 2010 has allowed dozens of sex offenders to obtain weapon permits.
Baudler now suggests that in some cases, sheriffs should test whether they could deny a permit to a sex offender who might seem to be eligible to carry a gun.
"If I was a sheriff and you're a registered sex offender, I'd look at what you were found guilty of and I would have no problem saying, 'You might be eligible but you're going to have to sue me to get it. I'll see you in an administrative hearing and we'll bring this out in public if that's what you want,' " Baudler said.
Sheriffs reluctant to deny permits now
An Iowa sheriff may deny a permit to carry a weapon if he believes probable cause exists that the person is likely to use a weapon in a way that would endanger themselves or others.
Those types of denials typically must be based on documented actions from the past two years.
Iowans who believe sheriffs have wrongly rejected their applications for a weapon permit may appeal. Each appeal, generally reviewed by an administrative law judge, can cost a county government and taxpayers hundreds of dollars.
Earlier this year, the Register reviewed the appeals of Iowans denied permits to carry weapons and found that eight of 19 won their case. That included a case in Buchanan County where the sheriff denied a permit to a man who he documented had 30 packages of pseudoephedrine a key ingredient for making meth delivered to his address.
The cost and the real possibility of losing a case is one reason sheriffs don't deny permits to carry weapons even in cases where they have reservations several sheriffs told the Register.
The state does not keep records of rejected weapon permit applications, and it is unknown how many, if any, sex offenders have been denied permits by sheriffs. No person rejected for being listed on the sex offender registry has yet appealed, according to records from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
Washington County's Dunbar, the state sheriffs' association president, does not advocate for a blanket ban on issuing weapons permits to sex offenders.
In fact, Washington County in January issued a permit to acquire a weapon to Ronald Nicholis Hahn Jr., who has been on the sex offender registry since 2005 because he was convicted of indecent exposure. Dunbar said he approved the permit because Hahn passed background checks.
Hahn, 51, said he poses no threat to public safety and that he uses guns for hunting.
"My offense happened seven or eight years ago and it has nothing to do with weapons, so why should I be denied the ability to purchase a gun?" Hahn asked.
Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, indicated that he believes Iowa's new weapons permit law doesn't need to be revised to specifically ban sex offenders. People convicted of felonies, including sex offenders, are already prohibited from obtaining a permit, he emphasized.
"If their local sheriff does not have probable cause to restrict that person under current law from being able to obtain a permit, then that's the situation at hand," said Windschitl, a gunsmith who has advocated for multiple pro-gun bills.
But the top-ranking Democrat on the House Public Safety Committee disagreed with Windschitl over whether Iowa's permit law needs revision.
"I wasn't aware that sex offenders would be given permits," said Rep. Bob Kressig of Cedar Falls. "This is definitely a concern."
Kressig was on a legislative committee in 2010 when the new law to standardize the reasons a sheriff could deny a weapons permit was passed. He said he's bringing the issue to Baudler, the current committee chairman, for further discussion.
At minimum, Kressig would like the Legislature to agree to look at the issue for potential action next year.
Baudler said he does not intend to push forward with changes to the law this year because it is an emotionally charged issue following the December school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
But Kressig wants to bring the issue up for discussion just the same.
"Maybe a study bill can be put together even this session yet. I do think it's worthwhile to look at," Kressig said.