Politics & Government

For the NRA in Idaho, an embarrassment of pro-gun candidates

WASHINGTON — When it comes time to endorse candidates in Idaho this election year, the National Rifle Association has something of an embarrassment of riches. There simply aren't many potential officeholders the NRA considers "gun unfriendly."

"That's a great predicament to have," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association and former head of the Idaho Republican Party. "It's a testament to the strength of the gun issue. You have candidates from both parties actively vying for the NRA endorsement."

In a state like Idaho where many voters own guns - polls have shown more than 55 percent have guns in their homes and one in five Idahoans old enough have hunting licenses - an NRA endorsement translates into votes. And as the election draws closer, Idaho leaders have been reminding their constituents where they stand on gun issues.

Consider what Idaho's congressional delegation has done recently:

-- Both of Idaho's Republican U.S. senators put a hold on the director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, effectively stalling his Senate confirmation over their concerns about aggressive enforcement of firearms dealers.

-- Sen. Mike Crapo spearheaded an effort to persuade the Interior Department to change its rules on allowing firearms in national parks. Crapo called on Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the former Idaho governor, to consider the rule change. Sen. Larry Craig, who sits on the NRA board of directors, signed on, too.

-- And in May, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali took on the ATF, calling one of its training slogans an "anti-gun, anti-private property message from a federal agency."

Republicans aren't the only ones. When the Supreme Court confirmed last month that the Second Amendment meant everybody, not just militia members, had the right to bear arms, Sali's Democratic challenger Walt Minnick was quick to chime in.

"It's about damn time," crowed the headline of his press release.

The current spiritual leader of Western Democrats, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is famous for his gun-loving populist swagger. He told the Idaho Statesman once that he realized he could reach out to voters on issues like education if he was holding a gun and sitting on a horse.

But do the latest maneuverings by Idaho's elected leaders represent conviction or political calculation in an election year?

"I think it's genuine that people care about their right to keep and bear arms in this state," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "Maybe as much as any other issue there is."

Crapo, who is not up for re-election this year, said he sees it as "a matter of conviction."

"I very strongly believe in the right to bear arms," Crapo said. "This is one of those (issues) where not only are my own personal beliefs in the Second Amendment very strong, but they are very consistent with those of my constituency. Idaho is a very strong, pro-Second Amendment state."

Some out-of-staters see it as outright political pandering, particularly on issues that will have minimal impact inside Idaho, such as allowing operable guns on national parkland.

"Idaho is Idaho," said Peter Hamm, the communications director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and an Interior Department official in the Clinton administration. But he called the Kempthorne-backed proposal to allow firearms in parks a "backward" and unsafe" idea, and said that it's not up to just the Idaho senators or Idaho residents to determine gun regulations for federal lands that belong to all Americans.

The state has had "some marvelous people serving in office," Hamm said, but he added that "on a lot of issues where most of the country has moved to the center, Idaho is far right. Politicians tend to pander to the lowest common denominator."

But many people who follow gun issues closely in Idaho say that a candidate's position on gun laws is important in a place with, by many estimates, one of the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the U.S.

"In Idaho, it definitely matters," said Ryan Horsley, the marketing director at Red's Trading Post, a gun shop in Twin Falls. That family business has been involved in a protracted court battle with the ATF over compliance with some of the agency's guidelines. Concerns about enforcement at Red's were among the issues raised by Idaho's senators in holding up the nomination of the ATF director.

"I talk to a lot of voters, and a lot of them ask, 'Where do (the candidates) stand on the Second Amendment?'" Horsley said.

A candidate's views on guns can make or break his or her chances at the polls in Idaho, said Arulanandam of the NRA. Come Election Day, Idaho voters are often seen clutching the NRA's political preference cards when they enter a polling place, Arulanandam said.

Arulanandam, a Boise State University graduate, said Idaho voters "can discern spin from fact. What matters to people in Idaho isn't the lip service. They dig deeper, they look at the voting records."

And neither political party has a franchise on advocating for gun rights in Idaho, said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University.

"Guns in Idaho means a lot of people," Freemuth said. "I think you'd find Democrats strong on gun ownership, and Republicans, too. There's so many gun owners in Idaho you really can't say that the Republicans are armed and the Democrats aren't."

However, Freemuth said this year people are most concerned about pocketbook issues, not about guns in national parks or what sort of training slogans ATF uses.

"When the economy's not particularly healthy, that's what Idahoans worry about, they worry about education, taxes," Freemuth said. "The gun stuff, it strikes me as pandering. It seems like it's a nonissue to the voters. To me it's more of a mobilizer, one of those issues to get certain people in the base revved up. But in terms of what I would think is on the minds of most voters now, that ain't it."