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Festival At Sandpoint's Gun Ban Splits North Idaho Community

Nick Deshais

War Memorial Field in Sandpoint is pretty quiet this time of year. People sitting in parked cars, engines running. A few dog walkers.

But come August, the small park overlooking North Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille will host up to 4,000 concert goers for the Festival at Sandpoint - as it’s done since 1983.

Last summer, Scott Herndon had a ticket to see the Avett Brothers. But he wasn’t there for the band. He was there, with his holstered .380 handgun, to challenge the festival’s rule prohibiting firearms. And he was recording the whole thing.

He didn’t get in, but Herndon didn’t go easy.

He asked the security guard to cite state law. He lectured him about the republican form of government. And he helped kick off a legal fight in this town of 8,000 people.

It’s not Herndon’s first legal tussle. In 2010, as the Bonner County Jail chaplain, he sued the county when he was barred from ministering to inmates after he advocated for a Priest Lake murder suspect. The sides eventually settled.

I met Herndon at a gas station outside of Sandpoint.

“I actually really just care about the law. And it’s not like I love to do lawsuits. But I actually really care when governments do not abide by the law," Herndon said.

After Herndon posted his video to YouTube, the county sheriff and commissioners sued the city for allowing what they consider an unconstitutional gun ban.

The city pushed back, arguing they’re not banning anything. Festival organizers lease the land from the city. And private property rights allow the festival to stop guns from coming in.

In other words, the case pits two fundamental rights in Idaho against each other: The constitution versus private property. With guns at the center.

Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler brought the issue to county commissioners.

“I heard the voice of the citizens here living in Bonner County. We take the Second Amendment and that right very seriously. If you look at our constitution that was adopted in 1889, it’s so strong. The Second Amendment is codified in our state constitution," he said.

Wheeler argues that the state lawbook allows gun owners to take their firearms onto public property.

Sandpoint mayor Shelby Rognstad and council president Shannon Williamson wouldn’t comment for this story — referring questions to their lawyer, Peter Erbland.

“It is a property rights issue from our standpoint because when property is leased to another party, that party has the right to possess and control that property and can exclude persons from it," Erbland said. "The city doesn’t take a position on whether or not firearms should be excluded from Memorial Field. That’s entirely up to the festival.”

In an email, festival office manager Amy Bistline said the festival will continue to bar firearms. She said some artists write into their contracts that guns aren’t allowed at their concerts. That, and there’s alcohol being consumed by a large number of people.

Herndon, who filmed his encounter, dismisses all concerns but his own.

“For me, there will be no compromise," Herndon said. "And if the county compromises and it’s unacceptable to me, then we will file our lawsuit, whether it’s in state court or federal court, and we will work toward a resolution that meets our demands.”

In the meantime, the people of Sandpoint are stuck in the middle.

Kay Walker was walking by the park one unseasonably warm day in late February.

She’s followed the issue and says she’s not against guns, but she thinks the festival should prohibit them.

“It’s tough because I come from here. I come from decades of here. So there’s always been firearms,” she said.

But she says these days, guns are more than what they once were.

“I don’t see a problem with people carrying firearms except now that there’s a conflict," she said. "And so now I don’t feel safe. Because I don’t think there’s common sense in carrying your firearms. I think somebody has a bone to pick.”

And Sandpoint residents are on the hook for legal fees from both sides. The Sandpoint Reader newspaper reported the city has paid $11,000 for legal work. The county also hired an attorney to the tune of $36,000.

A trial date has not been set.