As a Western state built from public lands and with a heritage of hunting and ranching, Idaho’s gun culture has long been integral to its identity. A March report from personal finance website WalletHub declared that we depend on the gun industry more than any other state, after examining our rate of gun ownership and industry-related jobs.
And as Americans take to the streets and social media to demand a national dialogue on gun violence, Idaho’s gubernatorial candidates are split. Some want to see change, others balk at the idea and some want to skirt the conversation all together. One candidate, whose son was shot to death, is calling for repealing gun regulations.
“Blame the killer and law enforcement, punish them, not gun owners. I support the Second Amendment,” Republican Steve Pankey said.
One thing they mostly all agree on is that they see mental illness as a serious factor in gun violence. Studies have found a tenuous link between mental illness and shootings involving other people – but a strong tie between mental health and self-inflicted violence. The vast majority of Idaho’s fatal shootings are suicides.
The Statesman sent gun position questionnaires to all 10 candidates for governor in the May primary, seven Republicans and three Democrats. Six candidates – Republicans Tommy Ahlquist, Harley Brown, Brad Little, Lisa Marie and Pankey, and Democrat Paulette Jordan — answered some or all of the questions. Two candidates, Republican Raul Labrador and Democrat A.J. Balukoff, refused to answer any of the questions and instead provided written statements. Two candidates, Republican Dalton Cannady and Democrat Peter Dill, did not respond.
Where do the candidates stand?
Tommy Ahlquist, Republican
As an emergency room doctor who has treated gunshot victims, Tommy Ahlquist has personal experience with the effects of both gun violence and mental illness.
“While going through residency, Tommy had a gunshot victim come into the ER, a little boy who was shot through his heart on his birthday. Tommy had to put his finger into his heart in an attempt to save the boy’s life. He then had to tell the family he passed away,” said Ahlquist campaign manager David Johnston. “Tommy also had a madman come into the ER attempting to shoot up the ER. First-responders, police officers and armed nurses were able to stop him before he was able to hurt anyone.”
Given those experiences, what is Ahlquist’s solution to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people while protecting the rights of law-abiding, responsible gun owners?
“I do not believe pursuing new gun regulation is the solution to these challenges,” Ahlquist said. “We already have enough laws on the books that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. We need to continue to enforce those laws properly.”
Instead, Ahlquist said, the focus needs to be on more mental health care: “Too often, kneejerk reactions aim to treat the symptom of the violence rather than the underlying root cause. We need to treat the underlying cause which often is the need to have more effective treatment of mental illness.”
A.J. Balukoff, Democrat
In lieu of answering the Statesman’s questions, A.J. Balukoff’s campaign sent a statement saying the candidate “fully supports the Second Amendment and respects the fundamental rights of Idahoans to own and use firearms responsibly. He also knows there are things that can and should be done to make the system better and keep more people safe.”
Those things include universal background checks and forbidding people convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms. Balukoff also mentioned revoking gun rights for people convicted of violent felonies, a punishment already in Idaho law.
The statement also referenced mental health. “People who struggle with certain mental illnesses should not have access to firearms until they have received the necessary care in order to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them,” the statement read. “Suicide is the number one cause of gun deaths in Idaho, which is why A.J. is a vocal supporter of increasing access for all Idahoans to adequate mental health services.”
The statement made a point of noting most gun owners are responsible and follow the law. “A.J.’s perspective is simple: by enacting common-sense reforms that most Americans, and Idahoans, support, and by making sure that current regulations are enacted effectively and consistently, we can maintain both the safety of our communities and our Second Amendment rights.”
Harley Brown, Republican
“I utterly abhor any gun restrictions whatsoever. Abolish them all,” said Harley Brown, who is a veteran and longtime National Rifle Association member.
“Any and all elected officials who infringe upon American citizens’ God-given absolute right to keep and bear arms without restriction, should be rounded up, tried for treason and hanged as domestic enemies of the Constitution they’re sworn to defend,” he said.
The only exception, Brown said, is if “a person has been deemed legally mentally incompetent, and only after due process of law, should he/she lose their sacred Second Amendment rights.”
Brown also supports doing away with criminal background checks, which are “ineffective and asinine” and “easily circumvented,” he said. “Consider the scenario in which I were a villain wishing to obtain a firearm, here are a few of my options: Get my squeaky clean wife or sister or friend to buy it for me; buy it myself at a gun show; buy it out of a Craigslist or newspaper ad.”
Separately, police are investigating comments that Brown made last week on air and over email, threatening violence against a Boise radio host. Brown told the Statesman that he would never act on his threats and that the incident was “just sword rattling.”
Paulette Jordan, Democrat
“I am a proud gun owner and carrier,” said Paulette Jordan.
She also is one of two candidates who participated in the nationwide March for Our Lives event on March 24 (Lisa Marie is the other).
Why she participated: “Because I support our students. The activism that has ignited in our state, as well as nationally, is a plea for change. Our students are most affected by the school security debate. They are the ones we are putting at risk when we refuse to work together to find commonsense solutions. Their voices deserve to be heard, and as their representation, it is my job to listen. The tone of their message is angry and urgent. They want sensible, precautionary legislation put in place, and they want it to be a state government priority.”
Jordan said she wants to see stricter enforcement of existing gun laws and more focus on mental health services. If she could implement three gun regulations, what would they be? “Ban bump stocks; require gun training certification and licensure for the purchase of military grade weapons; and greater penalties for gun violence and gun negligence.”
Raul Labrador, Republican
In lieu of answering the Statesman’s questions, Labrador also issued a statement: “One of my most solemn responsibilities as governor will be to ensure our children are safe at school. Tragically, our schools have become soft targets for evil people determined to harm our children and we need to take action today to protect our kids.”
Labrador favors “allowing teachers and administrators to exercise their Second Amendment rights, and as governor I will encourage school districts to approve additional policies that will permit teachers and administrators to carry firearms,” the statement said.
“But arming teachers is only part of the solution. We also need to address mental health, the lack of good male role models in our kids lives, and other broader societal issues.”
Lisa Marie, Republican
During her campaigns for various offices, Lisa Marie’s platform has focused on chemicals.
She continued that focus when queried about gun violence: “ ‘We the people’ don’t kill people, the pharmaceuticals companies slaughter people, 93.5 percent of Americans are poisoned purposefully from air, water, food, over the counter drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol.”
Instead of implementing more gun regulations, she thinks “education is vital.” She said she wants to see more “citizens watch,” comparable to neighborhood watch programs, and “school children must be heard when they know their is a problem.”
She is the only candidate who does not think focusing on mental health services is an effective solution to gun violence. “Our medical services are garbage,” she said.
Marie said she participated in the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, but not because of gun violence concerns.
“Guns are not the crisis. We are being set up for mass chaos by our government and the global elite who run the world,” she said.
Brad Little, Republican
Lt. Gov. Brad Little wants Idaho to talk about gun safety and violence.
“I am glad we are having the dialogue now, because, heaven forbid, I do not want to have it after something happens,” he said. “We not only need to have a dialogue, we need to get some stuff done.”
That “stuff” includes investments in mental health care, improving and increasing the use of the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and putting more emphasis on gun safety and gun training. Little also wants to make schools safer through technology — cameras, automatic door locks — and more armed resource officers or guards.
Also key to reducing gun violence in Idaho is addressing the state’s drug problem, which is shifting from methamphetamine to opioids, he said.
“If you look at the statistics in Idaho, violent crime is kind of flat, but drug crime is up. The nexus between violence and drugs is very high,” he said.
Little said tighter gun restrictions are not the answer: “I can’t think of any new gun regulation that would substantially move the needle in Idaho.”
Steve Pankey, Republican
Commonly after shootings, we hear families of the victims call for more gun control. Steve Pankey went the other way after his youngest son, Carl, a 20-year-old college student living in Phoenix, was shot and killed by his girlfriend in 2008.
Pankey said “all gun laws enacted post-1968 should be repealed.” And he does not want any new gun restrictions. “If MS-13 comes to your door with techie guns, you need at least the same.”
Pankey takes a more spiritual approach when asked the solution to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people while protecting the rights of law-abiding, responsible gun owners.
“A Third Great Awakening, revival, a return to the God of the Bible on God’s terms,” he said.
Instead of participating in March for Our Lives, Pankey said, he prayed. “I prayed for God’s wisdom for all Idaho school boards and administrators. I prayed for all Idaho first-responders. I prayed for Florida state and federal courts to punish FBI and local law enforcement individuals who failed by acts of omission. … The state of Florida was complicate by acts of omission in 17 murders.”
What do Idahoans think?
Of the 1,000 Idaho adults contacted for a Boise State University poll in December, just 1.2 percent listed gun laws as among the most important issues facing this state today. The wide-ranging phone survey featured an open question about top Idaho issues: Education (23.3 percent), the economy (14 percent) and health care (7.5 percent) led the rankings.
But Idahoans do have strong feelings on the matter, as seen in two recent polls performed for Idaho Politics Weekly.
The publication found wide disparities among 617 Idaho adults surveyed in February and March about their thoughts on a ban on certain high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. Men and Republicans were more opposed to the idea, while women and Democrats strongly supported it.
“That is a 20-percentage point difference in support/opposition of a gun ban between the sexes in Idaho — a large variation rarely seen in public opinion polling on any subject,” the publication wrote.
The publication found a similar political split on the idea of arming teachers. Overall, 54 percent of those surveyed said that step would make schools safer.
And a November poll of 618 Idahoans found 86 percent of them supported background checks for all gun sales — even private sales between individuals. Most states, including Idaho, have a “gun show loophole,” meaning background checks are not required for firearms purchased at gun shows from private individuals. Only federally licensed dealers are required to conduct background checks.
In the same poll, 71 percent said stricter gun control laws would not have prevented the then-recent shooting in a Texas church that killed 26 people and injured another 20. The gunman should not have been allowed to buy a gun, but his name was never recorded in the proper database to prevent that.
The candidates & gun regulations
Here’s where the candidates who responded in detail to the Statesman’s questionnaire stand on specific gun regulation proposals:
▪ “Red flag” law to temporarily remove gun rights from people deemed dangerous: Yes: Jordan, Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Pankey.
▪ Expanded criminal background checks on all gun buyers. Yes: Jordan, Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Pankey.
▪ Hold gun owners criminally liable for negligent gun storage. Yes: Jordan, Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Pankey.
▪ Continue civil liability protections for gun manufacturers. Yes: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Marie. No: Jordan, Pankey.
▪ Prevent local governments from enacting more stringent firearm regulations than state law. Yes: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Pankey. No: Jordan, Marie.
▪ Mandatory safety training to purchase a firearm. Yes: Jordan, Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Pankey.
▪ Increase age to buy AR-15s and certain other weapons to 21. Yes: Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Jordan, Little, Pankey.
▪ Ban high-capacity magazines. Yes: Jordan. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Little, Marie, Pankey.
▪ Ban bump stocks. Yes: Jordan, Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Pankey. Little said he supports the existing ban on automatic weapons.
▪ Ban assault rifles. Yes: Marie. No: Ahlquist, Brown, Jordan, Little, Pankey.