Advocates for the disabled say denying the visually impaired the right to carry a weapon would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Iowa state law currently does not allow sheriffs to deny an Iowan the right to carry a weapon based on physical ability or disability.
Private gun ownership by the blind is not new in Iowa, but gun permit changes passed in 2011 now allow the visually impaired to legally carry firearms in public.
Warren Wethington, the sheriff of Cedar County, Iowa, whose daughter is visually impaired, agrees that people with visual disabilities should be able to carry guns.
“People have this preset idea that blind people are going to be shooting at voices, and it’s just not going to happen,” Wethington told Here & Now.
While Wethington agrees there should be regulations on what visually impaired people can or cannot do for public safety reasons — for example, operating a car — he thinks visually impaired and blind people can be trained to use a firearm safely.
“I see no way a visually impaired person can operate a motor vehicle safely,” Wethington said. “But a firearm can be drawn and discharged, and truthfully it’s safer that way than a sighted person shooting five or 10 yards away. Because there is a possibility they could miss. If you have someone on top of you, and you rotate the weapon into them and make a contact shot, you’re not going to miss.”
Wethington says sighted people are often in situations in which their vision is impaired, for example at nighttime, yet they are allowed to carry a gun.
“There is any number of scenarios where a sighted person can find themselves in the exact same situation as a visually impaired [person], and nobody wants to talk about that,” he said.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
And now we turn to Iowa, where a 2011 change in gun permit laws made it possible for visually impaired or totally blind Iowans to carry firearms in public. Advocates for the disabled argued that denying them the right to carry a weapon violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. And Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington has provided firearms training for the visually impaired, including his own daughter. He joins us now from police headquarters in Tipton, Iowa.
And Sheriff, first of all, how limited is your daughter's sight?
SHERIFF WARREN WETHINGTON: You know, she can see shapes. She can't necessarily see the details of somebody's face. She can hit a paper-plate-size target at 10 yard. You know, a totally blind person is not going to be able to do that. And also, a totally blind person's not going to be able to perceive a threat at 10 or 15 yards.
If you put yourself in a completely black room, you're blind. You can't see. If a person attacks you, somebody hits you repeatedly in the head, if they try to choke you out, you can get your arm around them, and there is absolutely no reason why a totally blind person can't be trained to draw a weapon, rotate it up into the midsection of their attacker and fire a round.
People have this preset idea that blind people are going to be shooting at voices, and it's just not going to happen.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, sheriff, I wonder, because, for example, there are some restrictions on people with severe visual impairment when it comes to having the right to operate a vehicle, because there's a concern that they may be a danger behind the wheel to themselves or to others. Do you think the same concerns should extend at all to carrying firearms in public?
WETHINGTON: No. I see no way that a visually impaired person can operate a motor vehicle safely. I mean, if you have something that weighs two, 3,000 pounds and you're driving it down the street and you can't see, there is no way that can be safe. But a firearm can be drawn and discharged, and truthfully, it's safer that way than a sighted person shooting five or 10 yards away, because there's a possibility that they could miss.
When you have somebody on top of you, and you rotate the weapon into them and make a contact shot, you're not going to miss.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, just to be clear, Iowa state law does not allow sheriffs to prohibit Iowans from carrying a weapon based on physical ability, as we talked about. And so far, it doesn't seem as if there's been any claims of any sort of discrimination on this front. But there are some folks in the visually impaired community who seem to have some doubts, Patrick Clancy for example. He's superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School.
He told the Des Moines Register that guns may be a rare exception to his personal philosophy that blind people can participate fully in life, and I wonder what you think about that.
WETHINGTON: I'm sure he's very good at what he does. I would venture to say that he has spent very little, if any, time around guns. I don't remember exactly what the stats are, but 90 percent of all shooting incidents are seven feet and closer. You know, that's really not much over arm's length away.
I have a permit to carry, and nobody thinks anything about it, but I spent the first 20 years of my career working nights. My vision is impaired at night. There's no restriction on it that says that I can't carry a firearm in low-light situations. There's any number of scenarios where a sighted person can find themselves in the exact same situation as the visually impaired, and nobody wants to talk about that.
CHAKRABARTI: Warren Wethington is the sheriff of Cedar County, Iowa. Thank you so much for joining us, Sheriff Wethington.
WETHINGTON: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let us know what you think about what the sheriff said. Do you think it's analogous for a sheriff to carry a weapon at night and having some form of visual impairment, or a person who's actually visually impaired carrying a firearm in public? Let us know at hereandnow.org. While you're there, you can check out a video of Sheriff Wethington teaching his visually impaired daughter how to shoot. News is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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