Idaho students and parents are joining the campaign to force a wider debate on gun control and gun safety in the wake of the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida.
They’ll face entrenched, effective opponents in this state, long dominated by pro-gun politics. Just Tuesday, two of this year’s candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor told 200 members of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance that they oppose any new restrictions, including expanded background checks.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and Eagle businessman Tommy Ahlquist both said that they support ending the existing ban on owning machine guns, but that now was not the time to push the issue. They also want to arm teachers, an idea supported this week by President Donald Trump.
“It’s not a gun problem, it’s a family problem,” said Ahlquist, a former emergency room doctor. “It’s a culture problem.”
A wide range of gun owners attended the forum – from traditional sportsmen to Ammon Bundy, the Emmett resident who led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Greg Pruett formed the Second Amendment Alliance five years ago to reduce what he saw as restrictions on Idaho gun ownership. He claimed that they represent the largest voting bloc in the state “by far.” But he warned those at the forum not to get complacent.
“Idaho is going to be purple very soon,” said Pruett, who has moved to Wisconsin, where he is political director of the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition. “It won’t be long until we’ll be fighting to protect what we’ve got.”
Idaho’s long history of gun support doesn’t deter Anahii Jimenez’s hope that she and others like her can change the dialogue. When the Rocky Mountain High School junior saw social media accounts of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, she decided that she needed to act.
“It just triggered something,” said Jimenez. “It just keeps happening and it seems the adults aren’t doing anything.”
She jumped into action, organizing a local march to coincide with the national March 24 event the Parkland students have set. And she’s not alone. Students from across the Treasure Valley and the country have arranged a walkout March 14. Another nationwide walkout is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting that killed 13 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Some students haven’t waited for the scheduled events. A threat, later determined not to be credible, at Boise’s North Junior High caused many students to stay home Tuesday. Freshman Lily Allen said she stayed home to stand in solidarity with the students in Florida.
“I believe that the word needs to be spread about this problem that is occurring nationally and now in our own community,” Allen said in an email. “We are scared, and will continue to be until something changes.”
Students say they are hoping that their grass-roots activism can prompt state and federal officials to act to make schools safe from armed killers with semi-automatic rifles and 30-bullet clips.
At the same time, pro-gun advocates want less regulation of the weapons they see as central to their culture.
Since its founding, the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance’s lobbying has opened up Idaho college campuses to guns. In 2016, it successfully pushed a law that allows people to carry concealed firearms in cities without a permit. Currently, the group is pursuing a bill that would expand Idaho’s self-defense statute, adding that a person who shoots an intruder in their home or business is automatically presumed innocent and their use of force justified. Two such Stand Your Ground measures are pending in the House and Senate state affairs committees.
Melanie Folwell, a Boise volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, has been lobbying against that legislation. She said it represents a shift away from the gun culture she knew when she grew up outside of Caldwell.
“It was a different conversation,” Folwell said. “We went from talking about hunting ducks to being vigilantes.”
Both Jimenez and Folwell say they don’t want to take guns away from people. They say they want to make it harder for guns to get into the hands of people who are dangerous.
“It’s too easy to get these guns,” Jimenez said. “You can go to the grocery and buy guns at the same place. It’s not right.”
Removing guns from schools makes them “soft” targets that attract the kind of people who do mass shootings, Labrador said. He claimed that if teachers carried guns, they could keep students safe.
Folwell pointed to statistics that show there are more than 300 million guns in the United States already.
“If more guns in more places made us safer, we’d be the safest nation in the world,” she said.
In the Florida shooting, there was an armed campus resource officer who heard the gunfire and rushed to the building, but never went inside – instead waiting outside for four minutes as the slaughter continued. He was suspended immediately and then resigned.
When talking Tuesday to the gun advocates, Labrador pointed out that the shooters at Columbine, Sandy Hook and in Florida were loners who were not connected to others in their school.
“Too many students don’t have love” and don’t know they are valued, Labrador said. If both sides can get together and embrace these students, shootings and suicides could be curbed, he said.
Noelle Ihli, a member of Moms Demand Action, said Thursday that she was “surprised and encouraged” by Trump’s apparent shift to supporting expanded background checks, banning bump stocks that make semi-automatic rifles shoot more rapidly, and raising the age on rifle purchases from 18 to 21. Along with the student activism that has emerged, she said it makes her hopeful that change can come, even to Idaho.
And she agrees with Pruett on one thing.
“Idaho will be a purple state soon,” Ihli said.
Idaho’s governor candidates on guns
Tommy Ahlquist and Raul Labrador were the only two 2018 candidates for governor to attend the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance forum in Nampa.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little, another leading GOP candidate, was unable to attend the forum due to a family emergency. Democrats A.J. Balukoff and Paulette Jordan were not invited, organizers said, because they had not declared their candidacies when invitations were sent in August, ISAA president Greg Pruett said in a Feb. 15 email.
The Statesman on Thursday asked Balukoff, Little and Jordan for their thoughts on mass shootings and gun control.
Jordan, a gun owner who was among the House State Affairs members who voted to introduce the Stand Your Ground bill, said she supports expanded background checks, banning bump stocks and raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21. She disagrees with arming teachers and allowing guns into schools; she favors expanding mental health services and early intervention efforts.
“Mass shootings are a public health crisis and inaction is not acceptable,” she said.
She said the Stand Your Ground bill deserves to be debated, but she does not support Pruett’s group or its efforts.
“Gun ownership is part of Idaho’s culture and the fabric of who we are as Idahoans, which means we have an extraordinary opportunity to lead with respect to gun safety and best practices,” Jordan said.
Little said we cannot become numb to shootings like in Parkland, which “demand reflection and action by our state and national leaders.”
“In my travels across the state, I frequently visit with parents, teachers, administrators and school trustees. Like me, their number one priority is keeping our kids safe,” Little said.
Little pointed to ongoing state efforts to keep students safe including, including incorporating technology and automatic locks. He also spoke of school staff interventions with troubled youth.
“All too often the red flags are there, and we need to be more vigilant intervening before it becomes a tragedy,” Little said. “More training and mental screening is necessary, in addition to greater communication between teachers and counselors. It’s not just about resources, but also the capacity to intervene and provide the right assistance, particularly in rural districts.”
His response did not include any mention of the gun control measures sought by the students. On guns, he said: “I have a record on the Second Amendment which reflects the values I have lived, as a lifelong Idahoan, and where my fellow Idahoans stand on these issues.”
No response from Balukoff was available Thursday. In a separate interview, Balukoff said any Stand Your Ground legislation “is unnecessary. Idahoans already have the legal right to protect themselves, their families and their property.”
– Cynthia Sewell and Rocky Barker