Politics

Oregon lawmakers send paramilitary bill to governor’s desk

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
June 28, 2023 1 p.m.

Amid the chaotic final days at the Oregon State Capitol, lawmakers passed some of the most comprehensive and modern legislation in the nation aimed at targeting paramilitary activity.

House Bill 2572 allows the Attorney General to seek a court order if they have “reasonable cause to believe that a person or group of persons has engaged in, or is about to engage in, paramilitary activity.” The legislation also provides individuals “injured as a result of paramilitary activity” the ability to seek a court injunction by filing a lawsuit.

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“We need to give our law enforcement agencies the tools they need to confront the dangerous and troubling rise of extremism in this country,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement on Monday. “This bill does that, and it will be applied to paramilitary activity.”

Dueling demonstrations gather in downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer showed up downtown to oppose monthslong demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality.

Dueling demonstrations gather in downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer showed up downtown to oppose monthslong demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

The bill now heads to Gov. Tina Kotek, who has 30 days to review and decide whether she’ll sign it into law.

For decades, Oregon has outlawed paramilitary activity, such as creating and maintaining private militias. But state law enforcement officials told lawmakers during the session that the current statute is so convoluted it’s been used just a handful of times since it passed in 1983.

House Bill 2572 was among the flurry of bills passed during the Legislature’s final hours, as lawmakers raced to complete their work before the session’s deadline after Senate Republicans brought their chamber’s business to a halt during a weeks-long walkout.

The bill, which had bipartisan support in the House, but passed along party lines in the Senate, requires multiple factors to be taking place at the same time in order to apply.

“There has to be three or more people, training with a dangerous or deadly weapon, under a command structure and they have to actually be in the act or about to commit the act of infringing on people’s protected First Amendment Rights,” said Rep. Dacia Grayber, a Democrat who represents southwest Portland and Beaverton and was chief sponsor of the legislation.

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The original bill included language about firearms and also included criminal penalties, which were dropped as lawmakers sought to appease progressives and conservatives worried about possible misuse.

Grayber said a wide range of groups, from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union, influenced the final version that passed.

“I can say that the ACLU of Oregon continues to have concerns about the potential misapplication of HB 2572, ‘the paramilitary bill,’” Emily Hawley, senior policy associate with the ACLU or Oregon states in an email. “The ACLU of Oregon agreed to move to a neutral position, partially based on Rep. Grayber’s assurances that if the bill is misused against protesters, she will champion efforts to redress this in future sessions. We will be watching closely.”

Grayber, too, said she would be following it, “to make sure that it’s not abused and it’s doing what it’s intended to do. We haven’t done something like this before. Anytime you’re doing something new and given the sensitivities to ensuring that civil liberties are protected, we need to be very mindful how the law is applied.”

Rep. Kevin Mannix, who represents Keizer and North Salem, was one of the few Republicans to vote for the legislation.

“When you read the language carefully you recognize that it applies to someone engaging in a private, private, private paramilitary organization,” Mannix said during a May 17 floor debate. “Please understand the rest of the bill exempts legitimate security services, exempts law enforcement, exempts military … This bill addresses extremely disruptive behavior.”

Similar legislation was considered in other states, such as New Mexico. Last month, Vermont lawmakers outlawed paramilitary training camps. Washington state lawmakers have expressed interest in legislation similar to what Oregon passed.

House Bill 2572 was crafted with the help of Mary McCord, a national expert on terrorism and domestic extremism. She said from the beginning, the law was written to prevent potential abuse.

“If a political group is not doing those active things listed in the statute, you’re not going to be able to use this statute to go after political groups,” McCord said. “That said – it’s not crazy to distrust law enforcement or even attorneys general – we’ve certainly had a history in this country of law enforcement sometimes going after disfavored political groups, so I understand the concern.”

Until 2017, McCord served as a top national security official at the U.S. Department of Justice and now runs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. She has successfully used civil litigation similar to what Oregon lawmakers just passed to stop paramilitary groups in New Mexico and Virginia.

“You can have folks who are armed, that are patrolling their neighborhood, that in and of itself would not meet the definition,” Grayber said. “If that group decided they were going to patrol a ballot box and decide who can access the ballot box and who cannot, then that would meet the definition.”

OPB’s Jonathan Levinson contributed reporting.

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