‘Don’t Tread on Me’ license plates? Idaho senator proposes new law to make it happen

Spotted outside some Idaho homes are popular flags adorned with a patch of grass, a coiled snake with a rattle and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Now, Idaho lawmakers have proposed a bill that would create a state license plate featuring the message, some proceeds of which would go toward a gun safety education program. The Gadsden flag, dating back to the Revolutionary War, has become a symbol of individual liberty and resistance to government authority and has been most recently embraced by the far right and right-leaning libertarians. The bill has been sent to the Senate floor.

Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, who sponsored Senate Bill 1317, told a legislative committee that the flag has historically been used by different branches of the U.S. military, and that the rattlesnake is “found in no other quarter of the world besides America” and is an “emblem of vigilance” and a refusal to surrender.

She told the Idaho Statesman that the bill was brought to her by a constituent. She said it was “a symbol of liberty and limited government and freedom” to her as a child, but that as she grew older it came to represent Second Amendment rights. The symbol has in recent years been associated with right-wing populism and embraced by pro-gun movements.

The license plate would cost residents an extra $35 to obtain and $25 each subsequent year. A portion of the funds would be sent to a firearms safety grant fund, with the purpose of training school students on how to use guns. Contained within the Idaho State Treasurer’s Office and administered by the State Board of Education, the money would be sent to school districts that apply for them.

Twelve states have Gadsden flag license plates, Nichols told the legislative committee, and she expects the license plate to bring in about $25,000 in revenue in its first year.

“Every state that puts it in, it is one of the top license plates they sell,” she said.

Idaho rejects ‘Too Great for Hate’ license plates

The flag was flown by rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and has at times been tied by some to racist sentiments, particularly after a false conspiracy about former President Barack Obama’s citizenship status took root in the Tea Party movement, which embraced the flag. That has prompted some Black Americans to object to its use. Before the Tea Party movement, the message was uncontroversial enough to use on Nike jerseys to promote U.S. Soccer.

Nichols said she has never seen racial animus associated with the flag and that extremism is in the eye of the beholder. She said many Americans have different feelings about even the national flag, which has led some football players to kneel at games.

“Even our American flag evokes similar sentiments depending on who you’re talking to and what your thoughts are regarding its history,” she said. “Anyone can decide that certain things can evoke certain symbolism to them.”

Nichols, a member of the furthest-right bloc of Republicans in the Legislature, the Idaho Freedom Caucus, has herself been associated with fringe political movements. Last year she tried to pass a bill criminalizing mRNA vaccines, the most common COVID-19 vaccines which are also highly effective at preventing severe illness. In 2022, she attended a protest led by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy over custody of a child at St. Luke’s Health System in Boise. Bundy later lost a $53 million defamation case brought by the hospital.

The Idaho Legislature created a “Choose Life” bill in 2020, proceeds from which go toward an anti-abortion organization. Nichols, then a representative in the House, voted for that bill. The House killed another bill that same year to create “Too Great for Hate” license plates, which would have raised money for the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. Nichols voted against the bill.

“Lots of license plates can be proposed. Not all of them are going to be ones that get passed,” she told the Statesman.