‘A bridge too far’

Sandpoint mayor, Idaho Assoc. of Cities respond to draft bill strengthening firearms preemption

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Since late January, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad has found himself on the receiving end of dozens of phone calls and emails from gun rights proponents angry about what they describe as an effort by the mayor to establish “gun-free zones” in Sandpoint. More than a dozen protesters, many armed, even gathered Feb. 5 at the Sandpoint City Hall to express their commitment to the Second Amendment ahead of the regular City Council meeting, with several accusing Rognstad of attempting to establish “sanctuary cities” and institue “gun-free zones.”  

Gun rights advocate Steve Wasylko addresses the Sandpoint City Council on Feb. 5. Photo by Zach Hagadone.

Their ire stems from a letter sent by Rognstad to fellow Idaho mayors Jan. 29, telling them that he is hoping for some form of “legislative relief” at the Statehouse to once and for all end the drama surrounding The Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy at publicly-owned War Memorial Field.

Yet, despite the memes rampant among local conservative Facebookers and assertions to the contrary on Second Amendment activist sites like nwgunnews.com and ammoland.com, Rognstad is unequivocal: “I’m not proposing any gun-free zones.”

Bonner County residents are by now deeply familiar with the debate over whether the summer concert series is legally allowed to bar firearms from Memorial Field — the issue has dominated the local conversation since at least late August and spurred a lawsuit with the county and Sheriff Daryl Wheeler on one side and the city of Sandpoint on the other. 

The former argue Idaho’s firearms preemption law forbids municipalities from banning guns on any piece of public property, while the city maintains that it has done no such thing. Rather, The Festival is empowered by its leasing of the field for two weeks each August to establish its own security policies.

While the existing statute makes no direct reference to private entities that lease public property, Wheeler’s interpretation is that the city broke the law when it allowed The Festival to prohibit firearms at Memorial Field.

“In my eyes it’s still illegal, but there’s no penalty for committing that illegal act — that is the rub here,” Wheeler said. “And there’s a disagreement with the Sandpoint Police Department; they’re saying it’s not illegal, their stance is that it’s a contract, and because it’s leased they can prohibit whatever they want. The county and myself are taking the opposite view.”

In order to clarify the intent of the law — and reorient the argument away from preemption and toward public safety in an effort to provide the county with “better standing” — Wheeler has amended the county’s lawsuit to provide legal guidance on how law enforcement is to address the issue of guns at Memorial Field. 

“[T]he last thing that the sheriff’s office and the sheriff’s deputies want to do is respond to a group of several hundred or even a thousand people that show up to protest this, and then how are we going to interpret the law — if there’s gun play, if there’s safety [concerns] for the citizens that are there at The Festival,” Wheeler said. “It just creates a terrible situation, so I asked the court to make a declaration of finding based on that perceived event that could happen in 2020.”

While that determination remains to be made by a judge, now entering the fray is Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, who has fronted a draft amendment to the preemption statute that would dramatically expand and specify its conditions to outlaw gun prohibitions on public property regardless of whether it’s been leased by a private entity. It also institutes severe penalties — criminal and otherwise — for public officials who “knowingly or willingly” engage in any action to formulate or enforce policies of any kind that can be construed as violating the preemption law as amended.

An unidentified individual carrying a firearm outside the gates at the Festival at Sandpoint in 2019. Photo by Racheal Baker.

Rognstad said Zito’s amendment, which has yet to receive a bill number but Capitol insiders say could be introduced in some form as early as Monday, Feb. 10, goes much too far.

“The reason I was pushing for legislative relief is the larger implications of what’s being put forward by Rep. Zito,” he said. “It’s not just about Sandpoint, there’s going to be many different jurisdictions, many different events and counties affected by this law should it be enacted.”

Locally, he added, “The effect is going to be killing The Festival. … That’s just clear as day.”

Zito did not respond to a request for comment, but told the Sandpoint Reader on Jan. 29 that “this is an issue we need to address,” citing previous instances when she has worked with Boise-base gun right lobby group Idaho Second Amendment Alliance to overturn violations of the preemption statute in other parts of the state. 

ISAA President Greg Pruett did not respond to a request for comment, though his organization has been vocal and adamant that the preemption law was violated by The Festival’s weapons ban.

“Right now the ISAA is trying to expand gun rights, but they’re asserting rights that they don’t have,” Rognstad said. “What ISAA is doing is flying in the face of common sense. They’re unreasonable. I’m just trying to offer some sane legislative relief.”

Rather than a violation of Second Amendment rights, Rognstad characterized the conflict as one centered on property rights: “This is all about any public entity’s right to lease public property to private entities who then exercise their private property rights.”

Some local examples of instances where no-weapons policies are in place on privately-leased public property include Bonner General Health, which leases a portion of its downtown campus — specifically, the emergency room, patient intake area and helipad — from the city, as well as the Sandpoint business incubator. 

In his letter to Idaho mayors, Rognstad indicated that the Association of Idaho Cities, Idaho Chiefs of Police Association and Idaho Association of Counties are all opposed to Zito’s amendment. While representatives of ICOP and IAC did not respond by press time, AIC Legislative Chairperson John Evans, who also serves as mayor of Garden City, confirmed that the association finds Zito’s draft bill “problematic.”

“There’s just lots of circumstances that don’t fit with that kind of preemption,” he said, adding that specific events have varied security needs, and, “We just don’t think overriding that for a private event is a legitimate function of government.”

Evans agreed with Rognstad that the issue turns more on property rights than gun rights, and lands on the question of whether private entities are empowered to manage their own security policies on leased public property. Such a piece of legislation as Zito’s would only serve, he said, to “open up a whole can of worms” related to lessee-lessor relationships between public and private entities around the state.

“It’s an unintended consequence,” Evans said. “The Association isn’t trying to preempt gun rights; we’re trying to protect the rights of a private entity to conduct their event as they see fit.”

As for what kind of “legislative relief” AIC might support to settle the issue, Evans couldn’t say — “We’re watching is what we’re doing,” he said. “We recognize that your mayor has a legitimate concern.” 

Now that the issue has moved beyond the county vs. city lawsuit — which is scheduled for a status conference Tuesday, Feb. 25 at the Bonner County Courthouse — and entered the Statehouse, Rognstad said it will extend into the future.

“It’s not going to go away unless the Idaho Supreme Court makes a determination,” he said. 

“It’s a bridge too far,” Evans said of Zito’s draft amendment. “Certainly, we support the mayor’s philosophical argument.”

Additional reporting by Lyndsie Kiebert.

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