While other states have passed stricter gun-control laws, Idaho has been expanding gun rights throughout the state. This trend continued in the last legislative session, during which legislators considered multiple bills that expanded access to guns or where and how they can be used. The right to bear arms is a common Idaho value, but the pressure on lawmakers by gun-rights lobbyists has ensured that this trend continues in Idaho politics.
The Republican Party has held the majority of seats in the Idaho Legislature for nearly 20 years, and Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the nation according to Gallup. Idaho is the second most conservative state, with a 53 percent Republican lean. In the 2016 presidential election, Republican candidate Donald Trump got 59 percent of the vote.
Gun rights have been one of the more consistent issues on the Republican Party platform. Guns are popular in Idaho in part because of Idaho’s rural demographics and outdoor activities. Guns are seen as tools for ranchers and hunters, as well has the primary form of self-defense for homeowners. It is one of the main policy stances of the Idaho GOP.
Republican representatives in the Idaho Legislature see a strong connection between the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and gun ownership. Guns are a symbol of freedom and liberty to some Idahoans, and some representatives don’t want to see any restrictions or limitations on them. However, while there aren’t many headlines about gun violence in Idaho, deaths by guns are high in the state.
Idaho has avoided the tragedies of mass shootings and gun violence in the normal sense of gangs, drug dealers and other criminals. Although they don’t make headlines, gun deaths are high in Idaho, with 14.1 deaths by firearm per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 11.8, according to the CDC. Idaho ranks 18th in the nation by this metric. The majority of gun deaths are in the form of suicide. Between 2005-2009, firearms were used in 63.5 percent all suicides in the state, compared to 17.3 percent of suicides occurring from poisoning, including drug overdoses.
Idaho ranks 8th in the country in suicide, 57 percent higher than the national average, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho. The estimated rate for attempted suicides is also high, at 686 per 100,000 people. Suicides are the second leading cause for death for Idahoans age 15-34. There’s no clear explanation for the high rates of gun deaths and suicides in Idaho, but no matter the root cause, Idaho legislatures are continuing to expand gun rights in the state.
Gun laws in 2018 legislative session
Idaho legislators were busy throughout this last session, with multiple bills in the House of Representatives focusing on guns. There were three primary bills that were proposed, of which two were passed and signed into law by Governor C.L ‘Butch’ Otter. Another one barely survived committee, and was killed after one reading of the bill.
House Bill 585, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, made it through committee with a “do pass” recommendation but was defeated by eight votes in the House. The bill would have had state laws meet the federal law of banning domestic abusers from purchasing or owning guns for two years after being convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse.
The bill’s defeat in the House was devastating to Wintrow.
“(I am) heartbroken, on so many levels, because number one, a lot of people worked on that,” Wintrow said. “Number two, it was one more time that victims’ voices don’t matter as much as a gun owner’s voice. So one more time that we aren’t listening to people who have been victimized. As a woman, I’m tired of it.”
HB 585 even had some support from a convicted domestic abuser. A prisoner at the Idaho State Correctional Center wrote a letter of support to Wintrow for her bill. He said in his letter, “I think that anyone who has any type of domestic violence, or abuse, or injury to a child should not be allowed to own a gun of any sort.” The prisoner is expected to be put on parole in July. The letter was sent on March 5 and Wintrow received it just after the bill was killed in the House.
The purpose of the bill wasn’t to take guns away from anyone, but to give law enforcement a tool to protect victims of domestic abuse from further violence.
“[It] basically gave local law enforcement the ability to then do something,” Wintrow said. “So if they went to a call–the hair on their neck rises when they get those domestic calls–if you have a firearm and it’s been in those two years, then the cops can do something about it. Great safety tool.”
Wintrow’s bill faced a difficult fight during the committee process. The pro-gun rights group, the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance (ISAA), sent out an email to their supporters and all Republican members of the committee that explicitly told them not to vote for the bill.
In the email, obtained by Wintrow, the ISAA claimed that the bill is an gun ban. The email states, “The Democrats in Boise are trying to pass a domestic gun ban TODAY. We need you to contact the House Judiciary and Rules Committee right away and tell them to oppose House Bill 585 using the pre-written email below.”
HB 443, sponsored by Rep. Ronald Nate, R-Rexburg, sailed through the House and Senate, and was signed into law by Governor Otter on March 26. HB 443 allows schools to offer optional gun safety education courses to students.
“It teaches them, when they encounter a gun, to stop, don’t touch, leave the area and tell an adult. Kids that have gone through this–for example, the Eddie Eagle program which teaches this–have shown that there is an 80 percent reduction in firearms related accidental deaths amongst kids that have gone through the program. So it saves lives,” Nate said.
Sponsored by the National Rifle Association, the Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program is an animated children’s show that explains gun safety. There is however no actual statistical data to back up Nate’s claim of the reduction in accidental deaths because of this program.
In the 2018 session, Republicans also pushed for expanding “stand your ground” and castle doctrine laws. SB 1313, sponsored by 12 senators and two representatives, revised current laws on the use of deadly force for self-defense. SB 1313 expanded the laws to include homes, workplaces, or vehicles as places that people can use firearms to defend themselves. The bill faced little opposition in the legislature, and was signed by Gov. Otter on March 21.
Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, sponsored HB 444, a bill that would expand current castle doctrine laws in Idaho. The bill never received a public hearing, or made it out of committee. Zito had worked with the ISAA to craft the bill.
In a document obtained from Zito about HB 444, the ISAA played a large role in the bill’s creation. The document states that, “Our state has no castle doctrine and a weak stand your ground law. Our justifiable homicide statutes are archaic and outdated and not protective of crime victims. The ISAA has been working to help citizens bring about a positive change.”
The legislation was spurred by a survey that ranked Idaho 32nd in the country for gun laws. In response, the ISAA helped craft the bill, which Zito sponsored when she was elected.
Zito said she had been a member of the group’s Facebook page for a few years before she ran for office. She said the ISAA contacted her after the primary and informed her that they had been working on the castle doctrine/stand-your-ground bill.
“I told them I would be honored,” Zito said.
The bill’s progress has not changed since its public hearing in early March. The ISAA backed HB 444, saying that “Here’s what we know for sure folks regarding these two bills (HB 444 and SB 1313): One of them expands your ability to defend yourself, and the other one does not.”