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 sixthhighest 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.
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 rightwing 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.