BOISE – With Idaho state lawmakers fired up to protect gun rights, more attention is being focused on an Idaho law that’s been on the books since 1990 permitting any elected official in the state, including legislators, to carry a hidden firearm without a concealed weapons permit.
A 2011 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed no other state with such an exemption; most states exempt only peace officers, retired peace officers, military members, and in some cases, judges and prosecutors.
Earlier this week, a three-hour evening training class offered in the state Capitol on carrying a concealed weapon drew more than two dozen lawmakers and their spouses. “I learned quite a bit,” said Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, “and I’ve had guns all my life.”
Idaho law allows sheriffs to require those applying for concealed weapons permits to go through a training course, ranging from a hunter education class to a firearms safety class, and most sheriffs require those, according to the Idaho Sheriffs Association. It also requires fingerprints and a criminal background check. But none of that applies for elected officials.
“We have the trust of our constituents,” said Lacey, who has a small gun he’d like to carry when he rides his bike in grizzly bear habitat in the Island Park area. “I think that’s why we’re here. As part of that trust, we should be responsible with our guns.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, agreed. “I would say that their election to this body has been a pretty thorough background check,” he said.
Not all lawmakers see the merit in the elected-official exemption, though.
“I think people should be trained on gun safety,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who took a concealed-carry class with his wife a year ago. “The automatic issuance of a permit doesn’t require any training.”
Henderson, 90, got his first gun at age 6.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, agreed. “From a gun-safety standpoint, I think everyone should have to go through a program,” he said. Asked if he’d ever thought to take advantage of the elected-official exemption, he said, “This is my fifth session – I’ve never felt a need for it.”
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who attended the concealed-carry session for lawmakers, said he thinks the exemption is a good idea. “The world is increasingly dangerous, and the ability for anyone to be allowed to protect themselves and their loved ones should be a fundamental right,” he said. “We’re just citizen legislators, but we have a higher visibility, and I know here, in an open capitol, we have higher vulnerability as well.”
As he spoke from his seat on the floor of the Idaho House chamber, Barbieri gestured to the open public gallery above.
Idaho law permits citizens to openly carry guns in most public places, including in the state Capitol. State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna said, “It’s a little fuzzy, but it is allowed. We ask that folks that open carry in the Capitol, we encourage them to not. But if they are adamant that they want to open carry in the Capitol, they are allowed to do so.”
Last Saturday, about 800 gun rights supporters attended a “Gun Appreciation Day” rally inside the Statehouse, and many brought their guns, some wearing assault rifles slung across their backs.
Mike Kane, longtime lobbyist for the Idaho Sheriffs Association, said, “I don’t know of any other gun rally in the Capitol like that in the years I’ve been here. It was entirely legal.”
Kane gave a 7 a.m. presentation to lawmakers in the Capitol Auditorium on Wednesday on all current gun laws in effect in Idaho, both state and federal. “There’s an extremely high level of interest by a large number of people in the Legislature, and there’s an extremely high level of interest by the public,” he said.
The Idaho Statesman reported last week that so many pro-gun bills are in the works that GOP leaders in each house have designated a lawmaker, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, in the House, and Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, in the Senate, to corral all the various proposals.
“My goal was not to have a bunch of similar pieces of legislation taking parallel tracks,” Bedke said. “If someone can come and make a case that there’s a gap, then we’ll maybe take action on that.”
Bedke said he doesn’t view the elected-official exemption as a gap. It applies to any elected official in the state, from school board members and highway district commissioners to the governor.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he took a concealed-carry class with his fiancée six or seven months ago. “Since I’ve been down here, I have not carried one inside the Capitol,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I won’t.”
Kane noted that Idaho’s concealed weapon permit law, which has been amended half a dozen times since it passed in 1990, exempts lots of others besides elected officials from concealed weapons permits – including peace officers, jail guards, military employees, criminal investigators for the Attorney General or county prosecutors, city or county officials, retired peace officers, people legally hunting, fishing or trapping outside a city, and on-duty officers of express companies.
“It’s becoming pretty unwieldy, but we make it work,” he said.