POST FALLS - More than 100 people showed up Saturday morning at the Post Falls American Legion Post 143 to voice concerns about a future health insurance exchange in Idaho and several proposed federal restrictions on firearms.
The crowd was there to hear from eight state legislators from North Idaho about the current session in Boise, which has only been under way for a couple weeks.
State Rep. Kathleen Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, "We've all been very, very busy down there, but not busy on bills, mostly busy on rules."
In the absence of active legislation in Boise, the conversation Saturday zeroed in on President Barack Obama's health-care reform legislation and a recent package of legislation and executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said, "I'm sure most of you here are concerned about the two primary issues that we're dealing with, foisted upon us by the federal government - gun control and this state exchange."
He said those are two of the most defining issues the Idaho Legislature will deal with in the next two years.
Legislators are trying to decide whether to establish a state-based health insurance exchange, allow a federal one to be implemented in Idaho, or say no to anything that relates to Obama's Affordable Care Act, which is known as ""Obamacare." The U.S. Supreme Court determined the law is constitutional and Obama was easily re-elected in November, in part because of his success getting the landmark legislation passed.
Obamacare requires health insurance exchanges, which would allow people to shop for coverage.
Freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene, said the state's residents are losing freedom whether a state-based exchange is established or a federal one is implemented, "which makes this an extremely difficult decision."
Either way, he said, "We're doing the will of the federal government."
Federal gun legislation has only recently become a hot topic for Idaho's legislators. For those at Saturday's forum, gun rights was often an emotional issue.
Freshman Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said, "The issue of gun control is obviously going to be a big issue this year."
"Basically it boils down to two (issues) for me - the Second Amendment and Obamacare, and those are all about freedom," said Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d'Alene, another freshman. "I am obviously opposed to any changes in the Second Amendment."
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adult staff members dead, the Obama administration has been looking at ways to limit access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and improve the background check system for gun purchases.
"Changes are coming at the federal level," Morse said. "We will take whatever defensive postures we need at the state level to try and blunt those here in Idaho."
"I'm with you on the guns - absolutely," Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, told the audience. "That's very, very important to protect the rest of the Constitution."
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said legislation in Wyoming, Montana, Texas and other states has been written in response to Obama's efforts.
That legislation is being studied, and Idaho will have its own bill sometime this coming week "that digs in our heels, and says not just 'no' but 'hell no' to those executive orders," Henderson said.
The state representatives and senators didn't say what parts of the Obama administration's legislative proposals or executive actions they opposed.
Those in the audience Saturday said Obama is working to take weapons away from law-abiding gun owners and seeking to limit their freedoms, something the president has denied.
Brent Regan, a Coeur d'Alene School District board member, told the legislators and audience that gun rights are God-given, and that many gun owners take that to heart.
Malek assured Regan he's already seen three pieces of legislation being developed to protect gun rights.
"What is a mental health issue has become a gun issue, and that's just not right," Malek said. "It's just a reaction that has nothing to do with the cause of what we were seeing (with recent mass shootings)."
Malek added, "More people are killed with hammers than they are with assault rifles in the United States, but for some reason we're going after assault rifles."
Regan, responding to Malek, said he hasn't heard a concise definition of an "assault" weapon or rifle. He said the legislature could help define what an assault weapon is to preserve rights of gun owners.
Then, Regan added, to some shocked and uncomfortable laughter and rumblings in the audience, "My wife and I were having this conversation and I said, 'They can't figure out what an assault weapon is - it's just black and it looks scary.' And she looks at me and says, 'Well, so is Obama.'"
Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, also was present at Saturday's legislative forum.
Sheila Waller, secretary of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, estimated attendance at between 100 and 110 people.