Oregon, a hotbed of extremism, seeks to curb paramilitaries
SALEM, Ore. — An armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge. Over 100 straight days of racial justice protests that turned downtown Portland into a battleground. A violent breach of the state Capitol. Clashes between gun-toting right-wingers and leftist militants.
Over the past decade, Oregon experienced the sixth-highest number of extremist incidents in the nation, despite being 27th in population, according to an Oregon Secretary of State report. Now, the state Legislature is considering a bill that, experts say, would create the nation’s most comprehensive law against paramilitary activity.
It would provide citizens and the state attorney general with civil remedies in court if armed members of a private paramilitary group interfere with, or intimidate, another person who is engaging in an activity they have a legal right to do, such as voting. A court could block paramilitary members from pursuing an activity if the state attorney general believed it would be illegal conduct.
All 50 states prohibit private paramilitary organizations and/or paramilitary activity, but no other law creates civil remedies, said Mary McCord, an expert on terrorism and domestic extremism who helped craft the bill. The Oregon bill is also unique because it would allow people injured by private, unauthorized paramilitary activity to sue, she said.
Opponents say the law would infringe on rights to freely associate and to bear arms.
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The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dacia Grayber, a Democrat from suburban Portland, said the proposed reforms “would make it harder for private paramilitaries to operate with impunity throughout Oregon, regardless of their ideology.”
But dozens of conservative Oregonians, in written testimony, have expressed suspicion that the Democrat-controlled Legislature aims to pass a bill restricting the right to assemble and that the legislation would target right-wing armed groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, but not black-clad anarchists who have vandalized downtown Portland and battled police.
“This bill would clearly put restrictions on who could gather in a group and for what reasons they chose to,” wrote Matthew Holman, a resident of Coos Bay, a town on Oregon’s southwest coast.
The pioneering measure raises a host of issues, which lawmakers tried to parse in a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week:
If residents are afraid to go to a park with their children while an armed militia group is present, could they later sue the group? What constitutes a paramilitary group? What is defined as being armed?
Oregon Department of Justice attorney Carson Whitehead said the proposed law would not sanction a person for openly carrying firearms, which is constitutionally permissible. But if a paramilitary group went to a park knowing their presence would be intimidating, anyone afraid of also going to the park could sue for damages, Whitehead said.
“This particular bill is not directed at individuals open-carrying. This is directed at armed, coordinated paramilitary activity,” added McCord, who is the executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
On the other side of the country in Vermont, a bill making it a crime to operate a paramilitary training camp got final approval from the state Senate on Friday. The measure, which senators earlier approved by a 29-1 vote, also allows state prosecutors to seek an injunction to close such a facility.
“This bill gives the state the authority it needs to protect Vermonters from fringe actors looking to create civil disorder,” said state Sen. Philip Baruth, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington.
Baruth introduced the measure in response to a firearms training facility built without permits in the town of Pawlet. Neighbors frequently complained about gunfire coming from the Slate Ridge facility, calling it a menace. Baruth’s bill now goes to the Vermont House.
Under the proposed Oregon law, a paramilitary group could range from ones that wear uniforms and insignia, like the Three Percenters, to a handful of people who act in a coordinated way with a command structure to engage in violence, McCord said.
Rep. Rick Lewis, a Republican from Silverton, asked pointedly during the committee hearing whether rocks and frozen water bottles, which Portland police said had been thrown at them during demonstrations in 2021, would fall under the proposed law.
A frozen water bottle and rocks could cause serious injury or death, so they would be considered dangerous weapons under Oregon law, responded Kimberly McCullough, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s legislative director.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, whose jurisdiction encompasses Portland, testified in favor of the bill, expressing frustration that police often can’t single out violent actors lurking among peaceful protesters.
“Our current inability to get upstream of this violence before it starts leaves us vulnerable to organized criminal elements who enter into a protest environment with the express intention of escalating the situation into an assault or arson or a riot,” Schmidt said.
McCord, the terrorism expert, said the measure would mark a milestone in the U.S., where the FBI has warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism.
“This bill as amended would be the most comprehensive statute to address unauthorized paramilitary activity that threatens civil rights,” she said.
The tactic of enabling private residents to file lawsuits against paramilitary groups may be a novel one, but it has been used in other arenas.
Environmental groups, for example, can sue businesses accused of violating federal pollution permits. In Texas, a 2021 law authorizes lawsuits against anyone who performs or aids in an abortion. In Missouri, a law allows citizens to sue local law enforcement officers who enforce federal gun laws.
But the Oregon bill differs from these laws because only people who are injured by unlawful paramilitary activity could sue, McCord said. The Oregon bill also opens a path for a government enforcement mechanism, since it allows the state attorney general to seek a court injunction to prevent a planned paramilitary activity, she said.
Whether the bill will pass is unclear. It needs a simple majority in both the House and Senate to go to Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek for her approval or veto. Kotek’s spokesperson, Elisabeth Shepard, said the governor generally doesn’t comment on pending legislation.