Anyone Who Cares About Gun Laws Should Pay Attention To What’s Happening In Idaho

The national war over gun control remains at a standstill. But in the small Idaho town of Sandpoint, Second Amendment activists are fortifying the rights they say are constitutionally theirs — no matter the cost.

Getting to Sandpoint — a small vacation town just an hour south of the Canadian border, in the Idaho panhandle — means taking the “Long Bridge” over Lake Pend Oreille, a sprawling body of water French trappers named for its resemblance to an earring, or at least an ear. The bridge is two miles long and offers a breathtaking panorama of the Selkirk, Bitterroot, and Cabinet mountain ranges, blanketed in national forest, standing sentinel in the background. In good weather, the lake feels endless and bottomless, a reflection of a season that feels like it’ll never end. In bad, the wind whipping off feels like a curse.

To be on the Long Bridge when a train comes through on the adjacent rail bridge — which it does, several times every day and night — is to feel transported to a different decade, if not century. It all feels precarious and pristine, secret and special. Most everyone who moves to Sandpoint, population 8,700 — or the surrounding area of Bonner County, population just under 45,000 — has a “Long Bridge story”: what it felt like to drive across it for the first time, and the incredible urge to make some part of that place their own. Which is to say that Bonner County, like the rest of Idaho, is filled with transplants, especially from California, with more coming every day.

Some come north over the Long Bridge and are drawn to Sandpoint’s quaint downtown, anchored by an old grain elevator that’s been turned into a climbing gym. There’s a community-run theater, restored to its 1927 glory, and a smattering of brewpubs and coffee shops, offering Indian food and acai bowls. It’s Main Street USA, only with better skiing and more shops selling puffy jackets. Some of these people are retirees, who might have arrived 30 years ago or last month; others are young families in search of a small-town, outdoors-oriented life. And most of them, at least the ones who choose to live in town, are pretty liberal. In 2016, both precincts that make up the town voted for Clinton; this past election, the town reelected its liberal mayor.

Others are drawn to massive parcels of land miles out of town, still cheap enough to build your own compound and isolated enough that no one can hear you scream. Or, more charitably, where you can live out the dream of not even needing to tell anyone to mind their own business, at least in the vicinity of your property. The property taxes are low, and the regulations — at least compared to California — are basically nonexistent. On-grid or off, you can dig in and prepare your family for TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), whether it’s sparked by political revolution or climate catastrophe. And most of these people, outside of city limits, are some mix of libertarian, constitutionalist, and far-right conservative.

It’s this conservative influx of people that has earned the area — along with Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming — the moniker of the “American Redoubt,” a term that’s ultimately more descriptive of a sensibility, and a state of mind, than an actual location. One’s embrace of that state of mind can land anywhere from extreme prepping and John Birchism to simply having a big house with acreage and a "Don’t Tread on Me" flag. Many Redoubt residents are evangelical or fundamentalist Catholic; some are Mormon, or atheist, or just don’t think it’s any of your business what or who they believe in.

The Redoubt is no monolith. There are myriad political and philosophical disagreements among those who broadly share the lifestyle in the region; many even reject the name altogether. But the one thing they can all agree on — and the thing they moved to Idaho, at least in part, to see protected — is their interpretation of the Second Amendment.

That understanding, based on conversations with people across the region over the past three years, is that American citizens should be able to possess any type of gun, and any number of guns, at any time. They should be able to carry those guns in whatever public space they want without question and without hassle. And they should be able to do so because, to their minds, it is a fundamental guarantee of the Constitution: the right to bear arms, the right to protect one’s self and one’s family. Some of these “liberty-minded” conservatives, as many call themselves, believe that citizens should have access not just to AR-15s, but fully automatic weapons as well.

“We’re different up here. We are really different. This is what we do. This is our lifestyle. This is our right.”

Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler migrated to the area from California in 1998. “I’ve been here 21 years,” he told me, “and about a year ago, they told me I’ve been here long enough to have an opinion.” With a gruff, no-nonsense demeanor and a thick, graying mustache, he resembles a sheriff from a video game. “We’re different up here,” Wheeler said. “We are really different. This is what we do. This is our lifestyle. This is our right. To take away that right is to revoke someone’s citizenship and a building block of America and liberty.”

In 2016, Idaho joined 15 other states in allowing “constitutional carry,” a term adopted by gun rights advocates to describe the ability to legally carry a firearm, openly or concealed, without a permit or training. The term first came into use in 2010, as the tea party and other far-right conservatives rallied around the perceived threat of Obama administration “coming for our guns.” Unlike “permitless carry,” the term “constitutional carry” suggests that its advocates aren’t asking for anything novel or unreasonable. They simply want their constitutional rights. When originally passed in the state of Idaho, constitutional carry was limited to those over the age of 21; earlier this year, that age was lowered to 18. And they’ve fended off repeated attempts to introduce universal background checks, institute red flag laws, and ban assault-style weapons.

Depending on your political persuasion and current location, this might seem counterintuitive. One might expect the rash of mass shootings that now punctuate American life to decrease, rather than increase, the desire for ready access to guns in public places. But for millions of Americans, there’s a different calculus at work: Mass shootings mean that public spaces are more dangerous, which, to them, means an urgent need to protect themselves and their families — with guns.

What’s more, gun rights advocates believe the emotions around the mass shootings make it all the more likely that Second Amendment rights will be curtailed by anti-gun, anti-NRA legislators — like those who recently flipped the Virginia legislature blue, ushered into office by voters they see as irrational suburbanites. All the more reason, advocates say, to protect and codify those rights at all costs.

This summer, the tension between the move to curtail access to firearms in public spaces and the demand to protect that access once again came to a head. After yet another string of mass shootings — including one at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August — lawmakers again refused or were stymied in their attempts to pass additional gun control legislation. But a number of corporations decided to act in their stead. Back in February 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods had announced it would no longer sell assault-style weapons and raised the age of purchase of all other guns to 21. This September, Walmart discontinued handgun and assault-style ammunition sales, and officially discouraged customers from bringing firearms into stores. A slew of chains — including Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Wegmans, and Albertsons — announced similar policies. The private sector was attempting to change, in however haphazard a way, what publicly elected officials could or would not.

It was against this backdrop that Jeff Avery, a member of the Oath Keepers, and Scott Herndon, who’s known in Bonner County for his aggressive anti-abortion activism, decided to enter an Avett Brothers concert in August while carrying firearms — and filmed themselves being turned away. The concert was part of the Festival at Sandpoint, a 36-year-old institution that draws more than 25,000 attendees a year, infusing an estimated $1.8 million into the local economy every year. And, in accordance with several performer contracts, it had banned guns from the premises.

If the festival had been held in someone’s field, a privately owned winery, or an arena, that would’ve been fine — private property means you can make whatever rules you want about guns. But the festival has always been held at War Memorial Field, a public park leased from the city. And Idaho law protects the right to carry guns in public.

Herndon wasn’t just making an amplifiable piece of media to activate a national audience. He was creating a test case.

The city of Sandpoint claimed the matter was out of its hands. The festival organizers claim that if they’re forced to allow firearms on-site, the event won’t be able to recruit the same caliber of talent. So the issue’s gone to the courts. In September, lawyers for Bonner County filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing “Sandpoint’s conduct violates the express provisions of the Idaho Constitution and Idaho statutes.” And Sandpoint taxpayers are footing the bill for both the suit and its defense.

Whatever happens to the festival, it will be far from the end of the fight. As Sheriff Wheeler told me, there are other city-owned properties, including the field where the high school team currently plays football, that local gun rights advocates will look to next in order to “firm up” open carry. As they see it, they’re simply protecting unalienable constitutional rights. Polling, popular opinion, unabated mass shootings — none of it matters. These activists don’t care if gun rights are popular or not. They’re not right or wrong; they just are. And, at least for now, the president, state and federal lawmakers, and the courts agree with them.

When Herndon filmed himself at the festival on Aug. 9, he wasn’t just making an amplifiable piece of media to activate a national audience. He was creating a test case — one with ramifications that extend far beyond a music festival in North Idaho. How far can businesses and individuals actually push gun control measures in the absence of legislative action — and how aggressive will activists become in their attempt to fortify their rights everywhere else?

None of this would’ve happened if not for a man named Greg Pruett, who, as the head of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance (ISAA), has spearheaded every major gun owners’ rights campaign in the state. Pushing constitutional carry through the Idaho legislature? That’s the work of ISAA. Dropping the age of constitutional carry down to 18? ISAA. Turning the issue of guns at a music festival into a court case that could set a national precedent? ISAA. The goal: turning Idaho into a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”

Pruett, age 38, has a close-cut red hair and a trim beard. He’s a registered lobbyist with the state of Idaho — a point he likes to poke fun at when addressing his supporters — but he’s not slick or adept at glad-handing. Still, he has a quick smile and an ease with addressing groups that many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints develop growing up regularly giving testimony — to friends, during worship, on their missions.

I met with Pruett in September at a restaurant just outside of Sandpoint, where he’d spent the afternoon running a training session on how to contact and persuade political leaders, especially when it comes to gun rights. He wore an oversize hoodie, a baseball cap, and a concealed pistol; his friend and driver, Seth Rosquist, sipped water beside him.

Pruett grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, a mostly Mormon college town in the southeastern corner of the state. Napoleon Dynamite wasn’t filmed there, but you’d swear it was. Growing up, Pruett was surrounded by family, his church, and guns, which he used primarily for hunting deer, elk, and turkey. He served his mission in Japan, attended Boise State University, and enlisted in the Idaho National Guard, performing a tour in Iraq before being medically retired in 2014.

“Carrying a gun, it’s a commitment, and a pain in the butt.”

Like other advocates for constitutional carry, Pruett views it as a right — but one he said he never takes lightly. He only open carries when he’s dressed up (and there’s nowhere to conceal the weapon) or to make a political point. Other times he conceals his weapon, as does Rosquist, who works as a math tutor through Veterans Upward Bound.

“Carrying a gun, it’s a commitment, and a pain in the butt,” Rosquist said. “I’ve carried pretty much every day for 12, 13 years, and some days I look at it, this heavy piece of metal, and I’m like, ugh. It’s a mental exercise I go through every day, before I strap on: Am I fit for this today? And some days I’m not.”

When Pruett was serving in the National Guard, Idaho was in the throes of transformation and Boise was on its way to becoming the fastest-growing metro area in the United States. Many people arriving were from California, but they were also increasingly coming from all sorts of urban areas — Seattle, Portland, Denver. While some were fleeing the politics of the so-called Great Blue Wall, others were bringing those same politics with them.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, Idaho voters were still pretty evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But shifting loyalties — largely due to Republicans successfully painting Democrats as environmentalist villains responsible for the decimation of the state’s mining and timber industries — meant that by 2014, Idaho had become of the reddest states in the country. Out of 105 seats in the state legislature, Republicans held 84 of them.

Since 2008, the rise of the tea party had pushed the Idaho GOP further and further to the right. All over the state, sitting GOP lawmakers, county commissioners, sheriffs, and county clerks were primaried from the right, defeated by candidates promising to uphold “truly” conservative values. But even with more and more “liberty-minded” lawmakers in office, Pruett looked at the legislature and wondered: If it was truly filled with Constitution-loving conservatives, then why hadn’t they passed constitutional carry?

That was the impetus for the ISAA, formed in August 2012, which Pruett vowed would be more than just a Facebook page filled with righteous anger and memes. Instead, ISAA would focus on legislative action: lobbying at the capital, but also coordinating supporters to individually contact, cajole, and otherwise convince their representatives to support more robust pro-gun legislation. It would do what the NRA, with its increasingly toxic reputation and scandal-plagued leadership, could or would not.

Pruett has become well known for his methodical efficacy at the capitol, which is supported, financially and otherwise, by the more than 48,000 followers of ISAA’s Facebook page. For $10 a month, you can become a “Liberty Member,” and receive a membership card and ISAA hat; you can also buy assorted swag, including a pink women’s tee embossed with the Thomas Jefferson quote “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Pruett also posts memes, circulates petitions (most recently, opposing red flag laws), publicizes events (this year’s “Gold Banquet” at the Nampa Civic Center, whose tickets went for $40 apiece, sold out), and posts detailed video updates on various legislative and legal efforts.

For Pruett’s first attempt at getting constitutional carry through the legislature in 2013, he partnered with Alexandra Kincaid, a Boise-area attorney, gun rights advocate, and occasional Fox News guest. They’d first met outside a gun store, where Pruett was collecting signatures in support of constitutional carry. Together, they devised a strategy: Kincaid would help draft the legislation and provide legal counsel, and Pruett would get the dozens of supposedly “pro-gun” legislators to support it. But he quickly found that declaring oneself “pro-gun” was very different from being willing to support constitutional carry.

“How is 80% of the legislature Republican, and yet we can’t pass a constitutional carry law, which should be a no-brainer?” 

“On the campaign trail, every Republican and every Democrat without fail will tell you they are for the Second Amendment, they are for your gun rights,” Pruett explained. “They all do it — you can see the taped photo ops with the shotgun and the John Deere hat on. But I started getting frustrated. How is 80% of the legislature Republican, and yet we can’t pass a constitutional carry law, which should be a no-brainer?”

Pruett said he was told by legislators and their staffers to bide his time — or at least wait until after the 2016 election year. A recent study put Idaho’s gun ownership rate at 56.9% — third in the nation — and most Republican legislators, like their constituents, supported the broad idea of “guns and gun rights.” But many of those same constituents, including the gun-owning ones, also supported “common sense” gun reforms, like background checks. If a more radical bill like constitutional carry made it to the floor, it could put certain legislators in a tough place: vote against it and open themselves to a primary challenger from the right, or vote for it and open themselves to a primary challenger to the left.

So Pruett decided to introduce the bill to the state legislature himself, but it was killed before it could make it to the House floor. He became convinced of the existence of a “secret gun committee,” which met in private to decide which gun bills would be up for discussion. If a bill wasn’t supported by the NRA, or what he calls “the establishment,” it wouldn’t make it to the floor. According to Pruett, the committee was also wary of introducing legislation that wouldn’t make it past Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, whose son had been shot and killed in 2003. (Various unofficial working groups in the legislature do serve to filter which bills make it to a vote, weeding out bills that are too broad, unlikely to pass, or likely to get vetoed by the governor — much to the annoyance of both the left and the right. Still, the existence of a secret gun committee has not been confirmed.)

Pruett believed the committee was short-circuiting what he saw as the demands of the Idaho citizenry — whose will he extrapolated from Facebook likes and shares, as well as direct donations. (It’s impossible to ascertain the geographic breakdown of ISAA members; many comments on the Facebook page are from people in Idaho, but many are also from out of state.) So ISAA decided to change up its lobbying strategy: Instead of pressuring lawmakers behind closed doors at the capitol, they’d start doing it all across Idaho, hitting where every politician is most vulnerable.

“If you’re a Republican, or a Democrat, or independent, when we see someone violating the Second Amendment, violating the promises they made to you, as a citizenry, we hold them accountable,” Pruett said. “We’ll pass out mail in their neighborhoods. Say they’re stabbing you in the back. We’ll shoot videos in their districts. We’ll put them on Facebook Live. We’ll pay money to boost that video all over their district, to let their people know exactly what they’re doing or not doing. You can imagine how many friends I have in the capitol with that strategy.”

“When we see someone violating the Second Amendment, violating the promises they made to you, as a citizenry, we hold them accountable.”

But his strategy worked. In March 2016, with primary elections just months away, Pruett had conservative legislators in a bind. They could support the constitutional carry bill, or face the distinct possibility that someone farther right could use it as ammunition to vanquish them in the primary.

On the second try, ISAA’s bill zoomed through the Idaho House and Senate, with 13 representatives and four senators as cosponsors. On March 26, Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law, allowing citizens of the state of Idaho to carry firearms, concealed or openly, without permit, in public. It was a major victory for the ISAA, which Pruett was careful to frame as a simple reflection of the work and will of the people. “We are happy to see the Idaho Legislature and Gov. Otter stand up and support the will of law-abiding Idaho gun owners,” he told the Idaho State Journal.

Pruett wasn’t finished. He wanted to expand “stand your ground” laws in the state and lower the age limit on constitutional carry to 18. But the “secret gun committee” was still standing in his way — its will enforced, he believed, by Rep. Tom Loertscher, the chair of the state affairs committee and a 30-year incumbent from Eastern Idaho. Loertscher was a well-respected rancher in the community and about as “establishment” Republican as you could get.

“He was the one who kept blocking our bills,” Pruett told me. “Some people might tell you it was [House Speaker] Scott Bedke who was controlling it, because he controls all the chairmen. But at the end of the day, the chairman has the decision.” (Loertscher countered that he killed the hearing for House Bill 444 — a piece of “stand your ground” legislation — because it had “numerous constitutional problems,” was “poorly drafted,” and lacked support from the NRA. He killed the bill because it wouldn’t have become law anyway. “It’s called leadership,” he told the Idaho State Journal. “And when you’re entrusted with leadership, you have to lead.”)

In the spring of 2018, Chad Christensen, a member of the ISAA from Loertscher’s district, declared his intention to oppose him in the Republican primary. “I didn’t even think it was possible, honestly,” Pruett said. But Christensen, a former Army reservist with no prior political experience, campaigned by explicitly tying Loertscher to attempts to kill pro-gun legislation and otherwise curtailing citizens’ rights, including their right to bear arms.

When Christensen won the primary by 39 votes, he shocked the world of Idaho politics. “We had gotten involved in other races,” Pruett told me, “but that was the one that really changed the way people thought of us. They realized, OK, the gun owners are not messing around.” After his defeat in the primary, Loertscher opted to run against Christensen in the general as a write-in candidate. But even with the endorsement of Otter, the governor, he lost again. Christensen’s first order of business in the statehouse? Introducing a bill that would allow citizens to carry concealed weapons on school property, with no need to declare their firearms to school authorities. (Somewhat poetically, the bill was later killed by the new head of the state affairs committee.)

For Pruett, the work of protecting the Second Amendment is never done. It doesn’t matter that all gun legislation on the federal level is frozen for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump’s in office, or that the NRA has a chokehold on most conservative legislators. Even if the existing "stand your ground" law gets further expanded, even if carry-in-school passes, there will still be more to do, because there’s no end, in his mind, to the attempts — on the local, state, and federal levels — to weaken the Second Amendment. And all of these attempts, Pruett said, violate the state “preemption” statute, an “awesome law,” in his words, “that says cities and counties are not allowed to regulate the possession of firearms in any way. They can’t do anything with firearms other than say you can’t shoot ’em within city limits.”

And yet, with every mass shooting, there are attempts to do just that. Pruett can’t do anything about the advisories from Walmart or Albertsons. But over the last five years, he said, he's overturned dozens of anti-gun ordinances or signs posted in parks across the state of Idaho. And this summer, following the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, he embarked on his new crusade: going after anti-gun “suggestions” at public gatherings, festivals, and fairs across the state.

A week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting, a sheriff’s deputy in Twin Falls County, in Eastern Idaho, requested that anyone attending the county fair “leave security to law enforcement” and leave their guns at home. On his Facebook page, Christensen responded by declaring there was a “movement to stop citizens from carrying at county fairs” and requested citizens from all over the state to alert him if any other county fairs attempted to suggest similar guidelines. (Twin Falls County later released a statement “clarifying their support for the Second Amendment.”)

Over in Canyon County, outside Boise, Pruett had heard of signs indicating that guns weren’t allowed — even though the fair, like all other county fairs, was held on public property. The best way to test the rule, he thought, was to show up to the fair in July with a pistol on his hip — and tape the interaction to post online.

Initially, fair security attempted to prevent Pruett from entering with his firearm. “Do you know what the state law is?” he asks. “Then you’re violating it.” Eventually, he was permitted in; in the days to come, the fair eliminated any mention of guns on the fairgrounds. Pruett could have filed a complaint. But instead, he created a spectacle perfect for social media — the sort that not only convinces his audience that there’s a problem in Idaho, but that he’s out there working to solve it.

Up in Sandpoint, where the liberty-minded gun activists of Bonner County inevitably clash with the town’s more liberal residents, Scott Herndon was inspired to do the same. Pruett said he received “tons of messages” from people in the area, alerting him to the Festival at Sandpoint’s policy. At first, they tried to counter it “the nice way.”

“We tried to say, ‘There’s the law; here’s what you’re doing,’” Pruett explained. “We tried to put pressure on the city council to turn it around. We sent letters; we sent emails to the City of Sandpoint.” But the city, which is headed by a progressive mayor, stayed firm: This was not its problem. So Pruett worked with Herndon to make the issue impossible to ignore.

Herndon has a massive, bushy white beard that belies his actual age of 52. He’s a familiar, if controversial, figure in Bonner County, where he’s lived with his wife and eight children since 2004. He’s a home builder, a former jail chaplain, and a self-described activist; for years, he and other members of a group known as the Abolitionist Society of North Idaho have shown up at the high school and farmer’s market with graphic posters, yelling aggressive anti-abortion messages.

Law enforcement is regularly called on the group, and Herndon has worked to perfect his interactions with the police, specifically regarding their right to assemble on public property. “I always film myself so I can learn how to present myself better,” he told me. “If I say something that doesn’t sound very good, I’ll figure out a better way to say it. I’m trying to figure out how to be persuasive. I’m always trying to improve.”

Herndon always wants hard evidence of every encounter. “If someone misrepresents you, I have evidence to get the truth out,” he explained. “We want to protect ourselves, especially if the police do something unlawful” in their attempt to get them to desist.

So when Herndon saw that the Festival at Sandpoint was banning guns — knowing that it took place in a public park — he decided to do the same thing he does with all of the rest of his activism: film himself attempting to uphold the law. You can watch the encounter on the Redoubt News YouTube channel, and Herndon does, indeed, seem practiced and almost preternaturally calm. He’s the lead actor in a potential test case, and he knows it. Security turns him away, he argues that the law is on his side, and they turn him away again.

“We can’t let these radical progressive ideas and these radical progressive policies and these radical progressives thumb their noses at our rights.”

County-run fairs have no viable legal defense against proponents of constitutional carry. But the festival is a private nonprofit, and organizers argued that they were simply complying with artist demands, which would remain the same whether they were performing in New York, or a suburb in Seattle, or the Festival at Sandpoint. After all, two of the deadliest mass shootings in the last decade occurred at concerts: 58 people were killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Vegas in October 2017, 90 at the Bataclan theatre in Paris in November 2015. Ban guns, the logic goes, and significantly decrease the chance of it happening again.

To Pruett and those who support him, that logic is broken. Pruett told me several times that the security at the festival was, in his words, “a joke.” “They allow coolers in there!” he said. “You could easily break down an AR and put it in there.” But even that’s besides the point. People can make whatever dumb and unsafe rules they want on their own property, he said. This is public property.

“The city is trying to say, ‘Our hands are washed because we signed a lease with this private entity,’” he told me. “We’re saying, the preemption statute says that cities do not have the authority to do this. And if you don’t have the legal authority to regulate firearms in a public park, how can you possibly sign that contract and give rights to private entity that you don’t have? That doesn’t make any sense.”

After the video of Herndon confronting festival security was posted online, Pruett started raising funds for the ISAA to sue the Sandpoint into compliance. Within days, they had raised over $10,000; in a video describing the efforts, Pruett singled out and thanked donors from all over the country. “We intend to go to bat for you guys, because it’s not just about the city of Sandpoint,” he said. ”There are other municipalities across the state who are doing this exact same thing — who are violating your rights by saying that it’s a private entity.”

“We can’t let these radical progressive ideas and these radical progressive policies and these radical progressives thumb their noses at our rights,” he continued. “We can’t allow that to go unimpeded — because if we do, then more and more of them will start doing it. If we let the city of Sandpoint get away with it, then guess what? Then it’s all the other cities, with all the other liberal progressives on their city councils or commissioners or sheriffs — they’re all gonna start doing it. They’re gonna start ignoring the law.”

As Pruett was rallying support for the cause, he embarked on an 11-city “freedom tour” of the state. But before he arrived in Sandpoint in late September, news broke: There was no need, at least for now, for the ISAA to file suit. Because Bonner County, with the support of the county commissioners and Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, had beat them to it.

County Commissioner Dan McDonald prides himself on his transparency. He willingly gives out his personal phone number and spends considerable amounts of his after-work hours on his Facebook page, where he posts conservative memes, county announcements, and articles with titles like “5 Things Marx Wanted to Abolish (Besides Private Property).” McDonald’s cover photo features him decked out in a sleeveless black leather Harley Davidson vest next to his beloved motorcycle. A set of professional family photos include him with his three grown sons, all of them carrying firearms; McDonald is front and center with an AR-15.

The photo of McDonald on his Harley is also framed in his office. When I met with him in October, his reputation had preceded him: He’s known for his confrontational style in weekly commissioner meetings, his aggressive cost-cutting measures. “I’m no shrinking violet, let’s put it that way,” he told me.

McDonald first visited the Sandpoint area in 1979, went over the Long Bridge, and, like so many others, decided, “We gotta live here.” When he finally moved, in 1996, he launched the regional division of an international roofing manufacturer, started making good money, raised his children, went on Harley trips across the Mountain West, and cohosted a local conservative talk radio show. For several years, he was a member of the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group that protests and protects what its members see as “violations of the Constitution.”

In 2016, McDonald won his first race for county commissioner with the platform of making Bonner County “run like a business.” That included introducing “project management,” but also voting to give himself and the other commissioners a raise — “If you want it to be a CEO job, you have to pay as if it were the case,” McDonald told me. (The other two commissioners declined their raises.) He describes himself as conservative, and anti-abortion, but shrugs off questions about whether or not he’s part of the Redoubt.

“I don’t like the term,” he said. The Redoubt, McDonald said, has no leadership, no official meetings. He thinks people use it as a bogeyman, to gin up fear of conservatives. “I used to say to people going on about the Redoubt, ‘Let me ask you a question. Do you grow your own food? Do you have a garden? Do you believe it’s important to, you know, put stuff away? Even if you didn’t do all that, you live in the American Redoubt. So therefore, you’re automatically Redoubt. Welcome to the club. Come by and I’ll teach you the secret handshake.’”

Still, McDonald was certainly elected with support from voters who consider themselves part of the Redoubt. And like many Republicans in the area, he’s found himself assailed from all sides now that he’s in office: Liberals loathe his politics, while conservatives critique him for not being sufficiently conservative. “You slip out of their litmus test for one second, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve gone over to the dark side,’” he said. “How many things do I actually have to do to prove my bona fides?”

Now he’s added one more thing to the list: making the battle over guns at the Festival at Sandpoint a county issue. On Sept. 18, the county filed an injunction in district court against the city over the lease to the Festival at Sandpoint, citing the “chilling effect” it had on the exercise of the Second Amendment. The listed plaintiffs: Bonner County and Daryl Wheeler.

Wheeler considers himself a “constitutional sheriff,” a label denoting the idea that the sheriff has ultimate jurisdictional authority in the county, superseding federal and state agents. (There is no official listing, but an estimated two dozen sheriffs across the country consider themselves constitutional sheriffs.) When he was the legislative director for the Idaho Sheriffs Association, Wheeler worked closely with far-right legislator Rep. Heather Scott to push through constitutional carry. And when he saw what was happening at the festival, he requested to join the suit.

“In the state of Idaho, it’s clear these rights can’t be breached,” he told me. “To me, there’s not two sides. It’s not the festival and the county. There’s just the rule of law, and it says you can do this as a citizen.”

Across town from the sheriff’s office, in the cozy coffeehouse that serves as a de facto meeting place for most of Sandpoint, the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force was finishing up a meeting where they shared art, music, and poetry advocating for political change. The town’s mayor, Shelby Rognstad, was there to observe. Some had been members of the group for well over two decades — helping launch it back in the late ’90s, when Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations first aligned North Idaho with white supremacy in the public consciousness.

Since then, the group has worked to support progressive causes in the area, including passing the first citywide nondiscrimination ordinance in the entire state, and organizing a rally against Scott D. Rhodes, a California transplant who’d distributed racist propaganda at the local high school, torched hundreds of copies of the paper that covered him, and reportedly placed thousands of racist robocalls across the country in the lead-up to the 2018 election.

“For 37 years, this has been the premier arts and culture event of the area. And in 37 years, there’s never once been an issue with the festival not allowing open carry.”

These days, the task force is concerned about a Redoubt store that just opened up half an hour north, owned by the slavery-defending, Holocaust-denying pastor of a militant church. “We’ve lived through a lot of this,” Gloria Ray, a retired librarian and long-time member of the task force, said. But what was happening between the county and the city didn’t feel dangerous. It mostly felt dumb.

If the court rules against the city, festival organizers have said that they’ll likely have to fold, since there’s no other viable private space to use near town. And again, taxpayers who live in Sandpoint will effectively be funding both sides of the suit — which won’t be cheap, given that it isn’t covered under the city’s insurance policy and McDonald has brought in the notoriously expensive Davillier Law Group to represent the county.

At the coffee shop, Rognstad dragged a chair up to the table. He’s tall, thin, soft-spoken, very at home in a thick, cowl-neck sweater. He was also recently reelected, with a healthy margin, to his second term. “For 37 years, this has been the premier arts and culture event of the area,” he said. “And in 37 years, there’s never once been an issue with the festival not allowing open carry.”

Rognstad grew up three hours south in Lewiston, attending the University of Idaho before moving to Sandpoint to start a local bookstore and restaurant. He’s watched as the area has continued to transform before his eyes. “Up here, I think there’s been a whole shift around gun culture,” he said. “It used to be you just kinda grew up around it, your family went hunting, you learned gun safety at a young age. No one needed to brandish their guns when they went to work or to the supermarket.”

“When my kids were going to high school, I remember going through the parking lot, there were guns in the parking lots, in the racks,” the task force’s president, Brenda Hammond, interjected. “They’d gone hunting before school.”

I remembered that, too, from growing up in North Idaho. Gun use was normalized, but I have no memory of anyone in my life open carrying. This was before Columbine, which happened during my senior year of high school, and before the election of former president Barack Obama, which ratcheted up the fear that gun rights would be eroded. Before anyone in North Idaho had ever heard the phrase American Redoubt.

What changed, then? Sure, there’s the perception that even the most seemingly safe places — church, concerts, garlic festivals — can become instantly dangerous. But thousands of people had moved to the Redoubt area because they believed it was everything the places they were fleeing were not: a conservative, Constitution-minded place, free from liberal incursions. The reality is that North Idaho was never that way — and, regardless of the influx of far-right politics, it’s still not. But the suit is the latest attempt to return North Idaho to a land of wholly unfettered freedoms — to re-create a libertarian utopia that, like all utopias, never actually existed.

Todd Bradshaw, 46, buys a "Don't Tread on ID" shirt during the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance Freedom Tour at Eagles Lodge in Sandpoint on Sept. 28. Tailyr Irvine for BuzzFeed News

A .45-caliber handgun sits in a holster on Jeff Farnsworth's hip during the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance Freedom Tour at Eagles Lodge in Sandpoint on Sept. 28. Tailyr Irvine for BuzzFeed News

Later that night, a crowd of more than 40 people filed into the meeting room at the Sandpoint Eagles Lodge to hear Pruett, the head of the ISAA, speak. The meeting was supposed to be on the lake, but a freak late September cold front had moved in, and a snowstorm was swirling through town. In attendance were a dozen men in work jackets and mucking boots, a handful of patrons from the lodge’s bar, kids dutifully coloring through the speech, and Rep. Heather Scott, who introduced Pruett and the Second Amendment Alliance as “the only group in Boise that’s really looking out for the little guy.”

Pruett outlined the specifics of the case, made light fun of the security at the festival, and struggled to remember the name of the park where it was held. And then he told the crowd that the ISAA would be pausing its case while the county tried out its own, which would be filed in the state circuit court and could take years. The $10,000 the group had raised would remain on hold. “But if they back out, we’re going to federal court, absolutely.”

What Pruett wanted to talk about instead had nothing to do with Sandpoint, or even — at least directly — with guns. Instead, he wanted to test the waters with a new idea: abolishing the state initiative process.

Last year, a group called Reclaim Idaho, two of whose cofounders are Sandpoint natives, had obtained enough signatures under Idaho’s complicated initiative certification process to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Then, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone, it passed with 61% of the general vote. This year, it's mounting a campaign to put an initiative on the 2020 ballot that would raise taxes on corporations and the rich in order to better fund statewide education. Who’s to say, Pruett suggests, that the group won’t come for assault weapons next?

“All we want to do is stay at home, enjoy our freedoms.”

Conservatives, Pruett told the group, aren’t good at organizing. “All we want to do is stay at home, enjoy our freedoms,” he said. But the “radical left,” they have the volunteers, and the organization, and the door-knocking ability. They have “Bloomberg and his cronies with Moms Demand Action.” Medicaid Expansion received some funding from the Fairness Project, derided by conservatives in the area as “California money.” And despite the fact that outside conservative groups continue to funnel significant amounts of money and influence into the state, the defensive ideology remains. Pruett insisted to the group, “We are outmatched, we are outnumbered, and we are outspent.”

“What are we gonna do to stop the radical left from coming after the Second Amendment in our state?” he asked. “In all likelihood, they’re not going to be able to get much through the legislature. But if you were a radical leftist and wanted gun control, how would you pull that off in Idaho?”

From the audience, a few voices offered answers: “Say it’s for the children!” one said. “Say it’s for safety!”

“I heard it,” Pruett broke in. “An initiative.”

“Right now in California, Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Nevada — there are ballot initiatives to remove gun rights,” he continued. “I watched it happen in Washington state.” (Initiative 1639, which contained sweeping gun control laws, including “enhanced” background checks and banning domestic abusers from obtaining firearms, passed with 59.35% in 2018.)

“And now, at events in Washington, people will say, ‘I’m awake now. I’m ready to fight.’ Well, it’s too late! I don’t want Idaho to do that. These ballot initiatives, in our opinion, are extremely dangerous. If you want to protect Idaho, they have to go.”

Pruett knew that, to some — particularly the more Libertarian-minded — in the room, he was speaking something close to blasphemy. The thing about an initiative, after all, is that it can be used by both sides of the political spectrum to circumvent the exact sort of political maneuvering and subterfuge that Pruett had struggled with for years. It’s direct democracy at its most direct. And in many states, it’s the most effective route to very Libertarian goals, including the legalization of cannabis. But the success of Reclaim Idaho underlined just how unpredictable a tool initiatives can be and how readily the population can vote for policies, whether it's Medicaid expansion or universal background checks, that politicians are otherwise unwilling to touch.

Put differently, ballot initiatives — at least in Idaho — threaten to bring the law more in line with the politics and beliefs of the voting public, as opposed to the interests of legislators wary of a primary threat from the right. And Pruett sees weaknesses in the conservative hold over Idaho. In every video, in every speech, he reminds his audience: Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada — they’ve all gone, or are well on their way of going, blue. Don’t you dare think Idaho won’t be next. “The clock is ticking and there is nowhere else to run,” Pruett told his followers in a post published the next morning. “Idaho really is the last state where any semblance of a conservative state may survive.”

“Say it’s for the children! Say it’s for safety!”

This is, of course, deeply unlikely. A recent study conducted by Boise State University found that 56% of California transplants moving into the Treasure Valley — held up as the bastion of liberalism in the state — are Republican. Instead of turning Idaho blue, or even purple, they’re confirming its conservative identity. “Idaho could change,” the study’s author, Jeffrey Lyons, told the Idaho Statesman. “But if Idaho changes, you probably shouldn’t be blaming the Californians. It’s probably something else.”

A 2018 Idaho poll found that 86% of respondents supported universal background checks, including 74% of those who consider themselves “very conservative.” If the state does begin to walk back any of the ISAA-led legislation, or institute stricter regulations, it’ll be because conservative gun owners make it happen.

And yet, what Pruett is doing is endlessly effective, whether on the ground, through shares on Facebook, raising money on the national level, or during Republican primary season. Even when you’re winning the game by dozens of points, relentlessly remind your team that they’re under siege. Keep scoring points, wherever you can find them. Be aggressive and tireless in your defense. Point out how close Idaho is to the slope, and just how slippery it is. Ruthlessly single out your opponent’s vulnerabilities. Play by the rules and be a stickler for them. Let up for even a moment and risk total ruin — which, for conservative Idaho transplants, could just mean a gradual transformation of the deep-red state that lured them to move into something more like the place they left behind.

In Sheriff Wheeler’s view, there aren’t two sides to the case. There’s just the law, and those who want to enforce it. That’s a convenient, if reductive, way of thinking about it. No law is neutral; no law, even one established by the Constitution, is inherently right, or eternal, or immune from the interrogation of time and change. What’s happening in Sandpoint isn’t just the county versus the city, or the Second Amendment Alliance against the festival, or even constitutional law versus contract law, thought that might be what decides the particulars. At its heart, this is a story of an increasingly unpopular interpretation of the Constitution, and the increasingly desperate fight to protect it on all fronts.

“We need you to do more!” Pruett urged the crowd that night at the Eagles Lodge. “At the end of the day, it’s our grandkids who are going to suffer for our apathy. For our laziness. And I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want my kids to grow up in the country like that.” ●


The piece has been updated to clarify funding sources for the Fairness Project, which provided support for the Medicaid Expansion initiative effort.






The national war over gun control remains at a standstill. But in the small Idaho town of Sandpoint, Second Amendment activists are fortifying the rights they say are constitutionally theirs — no matter the cost.

Topics in this article

Skip to footer