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Bill removing ban on groups parading in public with guns heads to Idaho House of Representatives

Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Idahoans shared concerns that the bill would encourage private, unregulated militias

A bill that would repeal a section of state law banning private groups from being able to “parade in public with firearms in any city or town of this state” is headed to the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, the Idaho Legislature’s House Transportation and Defense Committee voted to send House Bill 475 to the House floor without any recommendation.

The Idaho Military Division/Idaho National Guard brought House Bill 475 forward after working with Gov. Brad Little.

Members of the House Transportation and Defense Committee voted to advance the bill after Idahoans testified during the bill’s public hearing that they worried the bill would legalize private militias that would intimidate families or wreak violence.

If passed into law, House Bill 475 would repeal the section of existing law that states, in part: “No body of men, other than the regularly organized national guard, the unorganized militia when called into service of the state, or of the United States, and except such as are regularly recognized and provided for by the laws of the state of Idaho and of the United States, shall associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with firearms in any city or town of this state.”

That section of law dates to 1927.

Maj. Steve Stokes, general counsel for the Idaho Military Division, told legislators officials with the Idaho Military Division identified the section of law up for repeal while working to implement Little’s Red Tape Reduction Act. Little first issued the Red Tape Reduction Act as an executive order designed to reduce regulations and bureaucracy in 2019.

Stokes said the law applies to civilians and does not apply to the Idaho Military Division’s operations, which include establishing military readiness within the Idaho National Guard, or planning for and providing relief services in emergencies or disasters in Idaho.

“Therefore the statue is unnecessary because it is not required for the administration of the Idaho Military Division,” Stokes said.

Idahoans who testified after Stokes said the bill is necessary because it provides protection against unregulated militias parading through town with guns.

Little, who is expected to announce his gubernatorial re-election campaign in the coming weeks following months of campaign fundraising, has conducted press conferences over the past two years boasting that Idaho is the least regulated state in the county.

Idaho law already allows for the open carrying of firearms.

Idahoans who testified opposed removing the ban on parading with guns 

During Wednesday’s public hearing over the bill, everyone who testified was against removing the ban on private groups parading through streets with guns.

Several Idahoans testified that in 2020, armed groups paraded through Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Coeur d’Alene resident Shawn Keenan told legislators that in the wake of protests over Floyd’s death, hundreds of armed men and women paraded through town carrying long rifles to intimidate people.

Keenan called it a weeklong occupation and likened the experience to being on a movie set.

“We were terrified, let’s just be honest,” Keenan said. “Many folks were not able to come downtown to dine at their favorite establishment or even enjoy our parks for fear of a discharge from one of those weapons for whatever reason, either accidental or through a perceived threat.”

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad — who is running for governor this year as a Democrat — told legislators the armed crowds marching through Sandpoint created a public safety risk and left local police officers concerned they could become overwhelmed if the groups turned violent.

Rognstad said passing the bill repealing the law would send a message encouraging unregulated armed crowds.

“This is a dangerous bill; it invites private militias that have no accountability to civil authority, they answer to no one,” Rognstad said.

Rognstad said the armed crowds showed up in Sandpoint two summers ago after a rumor went out on social media that a high school human rights march was actually an ANTIFA gang planning to attack Sandpoint.

“A large group of heavily armed people started patrolling our little town, and many people in the community felt harassed and intimidated,” Rognstad said.

“Our state’s anti paramilitary law is one of the few statutes that is useful in protecting public safety from private, unregulated militias,” Rognstad added.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, made an unsuccessful attempt to hold the bill in committee, saying he needed more time and information before voting on the change.

Ultimately, Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, made the successful motion to send the bill forward to the House floor without recommendation. DeMordaunt did not address the substance of the bill.

Syme was the lone Republican on the committee to vote against advancing the bill. He joined the committee’s three Democrats, Reps. John Gannon, Ilana Rubel, both D-Boise, and John McCrostie, D-Garden City, in voting against it.

If the Idaho House passes House Bill 475, the bill would be sent to the Idaho Senate.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.