A pair of pre-teen sisters has become an active political force in Iowa as they work on behalf of youth shooters to remove the nation's strictest age restriction on handling handguns.
Meredith Gibson, 12, and her sister Natalie, 10, have lobbied every single member of the Iowa legislature over the last three years in a quest to be able to legally participate in, and practice for, competitive shooting matches. As the law stands, nobody in Iowa under the age of 14 is legally allowed to handle handguns. Rifles, shotguns, and fully automatic and high caliber rifles, are not subject to the same age restriction.
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This rule prevents Meredith and Natalie from being able to compete in any handgun shooting competition within the state. In fact, it prevents youth shooting competitions that involve handguns to be held inside the state at all. The girls are often forced to practice in neighboring Illinois, known for its strict gun laws, so they can compete in other states.
"It’s an old Civil War era law, no one knew about, and most people in Iowa still don’t know about it," Nathan Gibson, the girls' father, said. "Natalie got kicked off a range and that’s how we became aware of the law. So at that point Meredith was just learning about the legislative process in school and she looked at me and goes, ‘Well how can we fix it? Can’t we just go make a bill?'"
"So they asked to start going down to the capital and they worked with Iowa Firearms Coalition, a local NRA affiliate, non-profit, to draft a bill to basically strike the age in the law, so it’s basically up to parental discretion to determine when it’s best."
"When I get into the competition I need to be able to practice, but I can’t practice," Meredith said. "I always have to go, like, out of state to practice and it’s just so frustrating."
The girls said they enjoy shooting because it lets them meet new friends and gives them a sense of accomplishment. "It’s really relaxing, because once you get ahold of it you don’t really have to think what you have to do, you just get to do it, and when you hit it you feel proud of yourself," Natalie said. "Like on a math test, when you get it right you feel really good."
"I really enjoy it because I get to meet new people and if I shoot the target I’m just proud of myself and I like to do it," her sister Meredith added.
The girls' bill has passed the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives every year for the last three years, but has yet to make it to a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The sisters say they're frustrated by the lack of progress and they blame one senator in particular: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Steven Sodders, a Democrat.
They said Sodders has killed the bill by assigning it to senators who will never let it come to a vote. "We have thirty-seven senators that support us, but Senator Sodders doesn’t want to give it to one of those people who support us," Natalie said.
They have become well known around the Capitol, visiting to lobby legislators on a regular basis. They have spoken to Senator Sodders so often that they said he tried to avoid them, to no avail, one day in the halls of the Capitol building. The frustration with Sodders and the Democratic leadership in the state's Senate have led the girls to partner with the Iowa Firearms Coalition's political action committee to try to flip control of the upper house.
"This summer we are actually going to go door knocking," Meredith said. "We’re trying to do this is because Steve Sodders, he’s actually saying, he keeps saying he supports our bill, and we’re like ‘OK,' and we tell him what we need help with, he says that and then he never brings our bill to a vote, so."
Sodders did not respond to a request for comment.
Nathan Gibson said watching his daughters have to get involved in politics so they can participate in a sport they enjoy is hard. "Well it’s frustrating, because, you know, a lot of people say, kids are gonna be hurt, you know, by firearms, but Meredith herself will tell you, she’s been shooting since she was five," he said. "But they have a pool at school and in the last month alone she has slipped at the pool, got a concussion, so she’s got bruises, you know.
"Firearms, as long as you’re following the safety rules, and we’re standing right over them, it’s much safer."