In the aftermath of the Boise Towne Square shooting, leaders are wondering how to prevent another tragedy.
After a fatal shooting, particularly one in a public setting, talk often turns to gun control. In Idaho, one of the most gun-friendly states in the United States, the chance of gun control passing is slim, political experts said.
“I would be extremely surprised to see Idaho or any state with Idaho’s political composition make any kind of more restrictive movement,” said Jeff Lyons, associate professor in the Boise State University School of Public Service.
In the case of Monday’s shooting, the alleged gunman was a felon, but did not meet Idaho’s standards for crimes that prohibit firearm possession, the Idaho Press previously reported. Idaho Code outlaws firearm ownership or possession by people convicted of certain felonies, but the suspect was convicted for felony retail theft in Illinois, which is not on the list.
However, according to House Judiciary Chair Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, that’s not at all likely to change. “I don’t believe that there’s anything related to a theft charge in another state that would ever really ring our bell as something that should permanently deprive someone of their constitutional rights,” he said.
Chaney, an attorney, said, “The list is actually a list of exceptions. Once you’re done with your sentence and your parole, as a rule, you get your rights back. You’ve forfeited your rights for the amount of time the court said you’d have to forfeit your rights, and then you get them back.”
Many felonies in Idaho, including grand theft, are not on the exceptions list. That means once a defendant has completed a sentence, there’s an automatic restoration process in which their civil rights are restored, including gun rights and the right to vote.
The exceptions list includes treason and certain specific crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, escape, aggravated assault, various sex crimes, and drug trafficking. Even those convicted of felonies on the list may petition the court to restore their gun rights after five years, except in murder cases and cases with use-of-firearm-enhanced sentences.
“We don’t want somebody who stole a 1985 Toyota to be in the same category as somebody who has committed very violent and heinous offenses,” Chaney said. “On a philosophical level, I wholeheartedly agree that once somebody’s paid their debt to society, that their civil rights should be restored. But I know that in light of a tragedy like the other day, it’s hard to look at grieving people in the eye and speak in philosophical terms.”
Still, Chaney said he wouldn’t support adding grand theft to the exceptions list, nor would he expect the Idaho Legislature to support such a change. “There’s nothing inherently violent in the elements of that crime,” he said.
In 2018, Idaho was named the country’s most reliant state on the gun industry, according to the Idaho State Journal, with the most gun industry jobs per capita and tied for the highest total gun industry output per capita. The state’s ties to guns go beyond just the economy — Idaho was also within the top 10 states for gun prevalence and gun politics.
“We have seen movement in the other direction in Idaho,” Lyons said. “There has been movement on the issue of guns, but it has been in the less restrictive direction.”
The issue of the Second Amendment has become central to Republican ideology, Lyons said, and there is a perception it is under attack from Democrats. More Democrat-run states have moved in the more restrictive direction, Lyons said.
“When you get movement by one party in one direction, the other party kind of reacts in another direction,” Lyons said. However, Idaho has a long history of cultural support for gun rights in both parties; in part, it ties into the state’s long recognition, both nationally and internationally, for its hunting.
Nearly a decade ago, longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby said, “As far as I know, no successful candidate for statewide office has ever proposed gun control, not even liberal politicians like Frank Church. It’s just part of our political culture – widely accepted, rarely seen as a negative – that people had guns in their household.”
When it comes to gun rights, the Gem State has taken a more absolutist turn recently.
For example, in 2018, a bill to temporarily prevent convicted misdemeanor domestic abusers from owning a gun failed in the Idaho House on a 31-39 vote, after the Idaho Freedom Foundation lobbied hard against it and its president, Wayne Hoffman, warned, “The gun grabbers are coming!” In 2019, Idaho lawmakers passed legislation to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to carry concealed guns without a permit or any training requirement inside city limits, something that since 2016 had been allowed only outside cities.
In 2014, Idaho passed legislation to allow guns on the state’s public college and university campuses, over the objections of all of its state college presidents and unanimous opposition from the state Board of Education.
Groups like the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance have pushed Idaho to remove almost all regulations.
Idaho lawmakers have sometimes struggled to find remaining gun restrictions to target, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. In 2013, Idaho lawmakers debated nine proposed bills to expand gun rights at a time when the National Rifle Association already called Idaho a “gun-friendly” state, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rated it as tied for next to last among states in its gun control laws, scoring only 2 out of 100.
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.
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.”
There is no state permit required to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun or handgun, according to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. And Idaho has no state laws “regulating ‘assault weapons’ or ‘large capacity’ magazines,” according to the NRA’s website.
Second Amendment rights have been a big issue for elected officials and candidates around the state, with at least two Ada County Sheriff finalists saying they would not enforce laws they considered unconstitutional and at least one other gubernatorial candidate taking a similar stand.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who displayed a gun and bible in an Idaho Freedom Foundation video last fall, said she would be a strong advocate of Second Amendment rights when she announced her run for governor. According to the Associated Press, such a political stance is “an essential position for Republicans seeking office.”
That was back on display this week, when lieutenant governor candidate Priscilla Giddings, a state representative, released a statement Tuesday saying, “gun control kills.”
“Sadly the Towne Square Mall banned all firearms, including those carried by law-abiding citizens for self defense,” Giddings said. “Innocent people were hurt and killed yesterday because they were not allowed to defend themselves.”
In contrast to Giddings’ statement, the Idaho chapters of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action said in a statement that they were heartbroken about the shooting and called on legislators to make changes in response.
“No one should have to fear gun violence in a mall, school, workplace, or anywhere in our community,” said Jacquelyn Hamilton, a volunteer with the Idaho chapter of Moms Demand Action. “It’s time for Idaho lawmakers to take our gun violence epidemic seriously and take action now.”
In 2019, there were 255 firearm injury deaths in the state, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That resulted in a death rate of 14.2 per 100,000 people related to guns.
Guns are very important in Idaho culture, said The Idaho 97 Project Executive Director Mike Satz, who has lived in the state for 17 years.
Satz has owned guns his whole life, was in the military and has done competitive shooting. He is pro-Second Amendment.
According to its website, The Idaho 97 Project supports the democratic process in Idaho, counters disinformation and extremism through proactive, fact-based action and media messaging, and protects free expression and good governance.
After shootings like the one that occurred Monday at Boise Towne Square, gun control advocates will likely start screaming about gun control and Second Amendment advocates will likely start screaming no to proposals, Satz said.
“None of us ever get anywhere with that,” Satz said. “This seems like this could be an area where people can come together and at least talk about it … that’s really the problem.”
Carolyn Komatsoulis covers Meridian and Ada County. Contact her at 208-465-8107 and follow her on Twitter @CKomatsoulis.