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Gun laws make Idaho a haven for firearms supporters

BOISE – As the nation remains locked in debate over expanding background checks and other measures aimed at stemming gun violence, Idaho lawmakers this year pushed to expand the state’s already-friendly posture on gun rights.

“There’s little doubt that Idahoans are very supportive of the Second Amendment,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Twin Falls. “I think we made significant progress on that front.”

Although nine bills were debated, including unsuccessful proposals to arm school principals and arrest state and local law enforcement officers who enforce any new federal restrictions on gun rights, just four modest tweaks to existing laws won approval. The most notable among them was creation of an optional enhanced concealed weapons permit that would require additional training but would be accepted in more states.

Idaho’s existing gun laws are already among the least restrictive in the nation. The NRA calls Idaho a “gun-friendly” state, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rates it as tied for next to last among states in its gun control laws, scoring only 2 out of 100.

“Since I’ve been in the Legislature, every year we work on gun laws, tightening up our gun laws and making sure we’re protecting people’s rights to own,” said state Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, a retired Navy officer and frequent sponsor of gun rights legislation who is in his seventh year in the Legislature. “It’s getting hard for us – there’s no easy fixes anymore.”

That hasn’t stopped Idaho lawmakers from trying. House members were so incensed this year about the Senate’s refusal to consider its plan to outlaw state and local enforcement of any new federal gun restrictions that when Hagedorn’s school safety bill – requiring school districts to develop school security plans, which could include arming teachers or others on school campuses – arrived in the House, they stripped out the entire contents of the bill and replaced it with their House-passed measures as a protest. Then, the amended bill died.

Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, said one of his biggest disappointments in this year’s legislative session was not having “pro-Second Amendment legislation pass both houses.” Mendive was a co-sponsor of House Bill 219, the proposal that would have made it a misdemeanor crime for Idaho police officers to enforce new federal gun restrictions.

Asked if he sees gaps in Idaho’s current laws to protect Second Amendment rights, Mendive said, “I guess we can’t overprotect the Second Amendment. It’s there for a reason, and we need to make sure that we preserve it.”

The Idaho Constitution says, “No law shall impose licensure, registration or special taxation on the ownership or possession of firearms or ammunition. Nor shall any law permit the confiscation of firearms, except those actually used in the commission of a felony.”

Idaho permits the open carrying of firearms, even in the state Capitol; it has a state law pre-empting any local regulation of guns; machine guns are legal; and there are no state limits or restrictions on gun purchases, other than requiring written consent of parents or guardians for sales to those under age 18. Existing shooting ranges are protected against nuisance lawsuits, and Idaho has a “firearms freedom law” declaring that Idaho-made guns and ammunition are exempt from federal regulation as long as they remain within the state.

Gun rights are part of the culture in Idaho, which is known nationally and internationally for its hunting. Each year, more than 10,000 people sign up for hunter education courses through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

“I think it’s because we’re not that far removed from the frontier, where guns were necessary for survival, and now largely used for recreation,” longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby said. “We became a territory only 150 years ago. And that’s just two lifetimes ago.”

He noted that gun rights are practically an article of faith for Idaho politicians from either party. “As far as I know, no successful candidate for statewide office has ever proposed gun control, not even liberal politicians like Frank Church,” he said. “It’s just part of our political culture – widely accepted, rarely seen as a negative – that people had guns in their household.”

Hagedorn said, “Frankly, we’ve got really good gun laws in Idaho, starting from our constitution on down, and when people ask us to make it better, it’s hard to find ways.”

Stephanie Samford, an NRA spokeswoman, said, “Idaho has gun laws that respect the Second Amendment. … Idaho has very gun-friendly laws.”

The other three gun bills that passed the Idaho Legislature this year were:

• House Bill 258, to give Idahoans who apply for a concealed weapons permit a free copy of their background check if they want it. It passed both houses unanimously.

• House Bill 223, a bill to clarify that concealed weapons permits aren’t required for certain weapons – knives with blades up to 4 inches, Tasers and pepper spray. Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, proposed the bill after his son was cited for having a knife concealed under the seat of his car. It also passed both houses unanimously.

• House Bill 183, to repeal a no-longer-used law that let cities regulate concealed weapons. That law hasn’t applied since Idaho passed its state pre-emption law for regulation of guns in 2008. The bill drew two “no” votes in the House and passed unanimously in the Senate.

Gov. Butch Otter and legislative leaders have pledged to work over the summer on further gun-rights legislation.

Asked if there are holes in the state’s remaining gun-rights laws, Bedke said, “I don’t know that there are holes, but I think there are concerns in the body politic that there might be.”

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