Guns — not gunshots — expected at N. Idaho Fair

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  • Idaho law allows for open carry at the North Idaho State Fair. Last year, more than 85,000 people attended the fair. Of the five crowd incidents, none involved a firearm. (Photo Illustration by LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 1

    Jordan

  • Idaho law allows for open carry at the North Idaho State Fair. Last year, more than 85,000 people attended the fair. Of the five crowd incidents, none involved a firearm. (Photo Illustration by LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 1

    Jordan

COEUR d’ALENE — North Idaho is not a soft target.

Law enforcement defines “soft target” as a gun-free place where people gather peacefully. It’s a passive environment easily targeted by mass shooters.

Soft targets allow murderers to inflict the most damage in the least amount of time with minimal resistance.

“They don’t want to go to a place where a lot of people are carrying guns,” said Dwight Van Horn, an NRA board member and former police officer who lives in Hayden.

North Idaho, and Kootenai County specifically, has its share of well-attended public events. The North Idaho State Fair in Coeur d’Alene attracts tens of thousands of people each August. This year’s fair is Aug. 21 to 25.

Recent shootings in Ohio and Texas have raised concerns about the safety of attending large gatherings, even in gun-friendly North Idaho, where more than 56% of households have at least one firearm, according to SafeHome.org, which tracks gun laws and ownership.

A recent change in Idaho’s open-carry law allows 18-year-olds to openly carry a firearm almost anywhere. Schools, jails, courthouses and federal buildings are among the exceptions, and despite being off-putting to some and scary to others, the sight of a gun on the hip of a stranger in a crowd is something local police have become accustomed to. It’s a right.

“It’s the law,” said Alexcia Jordan, general manager of the North Idaho State Fair. “People can open carry.”

Last year, more than 85,000 people attended the fair, Jordan said. Security teams including Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies and employees of Spokane-based Crowd Management Services responded to fewer than five incidents. None involved a firearm.

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Ryan Higgins said his deputies are accustomed to people carrying guns; law enforcement officers treat them like anyone else unless there’s an issue.

“If there is someone at the fair open-carrying, there is nothing we can do about it unless they are intoxicated,” Higgins said. “Then we can address that issue.”

Carrying a firearm while drunk is illegal. So is discharging a firearm within city limits.

After the state’s permitless carry laws went into effect three years ago, law enforcement accused legislators of removing a tool that police used to learn about suspects.

“We believe dismantling the long-standing and effective permitting system without taking additional precautionary steps will weaken public safety,” Bill Bones, Jeff Lavey and Rick Allen, chiefs of police in Ada County, wrote in a letter to the Idaho Statesman. “Our concealed weapons licensing system is the only way to determine the person is not a felon or dangerous person prohibited from possessing firearms.”

New permitless and open carry laws have had little effect on violent crime rates in Idaho, which logged 27 gun homicides last year, according to GunPolicy.org. The rate of gun homicides last year in Idaho was 1.57 per 100,000 people, compared with 13 in the District of Columbia, 3.3 in California and 1.8 in Oregon.

According to a survey conducted last spring by The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center, most people feel less safe in public places than they did 20 years ago.

More than 60% of the 1,063 people interviewed said public places such as schools and colleges and places of worship have become less safe during the past 20 years. The lack of confidence in the security of those places increased slightly, the survey found.

At the same time, Idaho’s population growth has skyrocketed. With some of the most liberal gun laws in the nation, the Gem State was the fastest-growing state in 2017; last year, it tied with Nevada for the highest growth rate. Between July 2017 and July 2018, Idaho’s population grew by more than 35,000 people, to 1,754,208, according to the Census Bureau.

Having a reputation as being a safe place to live is among reasons people come to Idaho, Van Horn said.

And so far the state’s gun laws have not changed that sentiment.

“It’s not unusual to walk into a place and see someone openly carrying a gun here,” he said. “In some places, people overreact when they see someone with a gun. That doesn’t happen as much here.”

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