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Legislative committee splits on bill to prohibit paramilitary training

The Maine State House dome is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
The Maine State House dome is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Members of a legislative committee were evenly divided Wednesday over a bill that aims to prohibit paramilitary training camps in Maine.

Supporters contend the measure would give prosecutors a preemptive tool against potentially violent groups. But some lawmakers are concerned that the proposal either goes too far or could be misused.

The bill from Democratic Rep. Laurie Osher of Orono that would make it a felony to teach others in firearms or explosives if that training is intended to cause "civil disorder." The measure would also prohibit people from assembling for such training.

The 6-6 vote in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee feel largely along party lines, with one Democrat, Rep. Nina Milliken of Blue Hill, joining all of the panel's Republicans in opposing the measure. Prior to the vote, Milliken told Attorney General Aaron Frey that she was concerned about how the law would be applied.

White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have been making headlines around New England for several years with their small but boisterous rallies targeting immigrants, minority groups and the LGBTQ community. But alarms went off in Maine last summerafter the leader of one, national neo-Nazi group bought land in rural, northern Penobscot County and began building a camp with his followers.

On Wednesday, Frey told lawmakers that state law already prohibits the formation of "private armies" whose members parade in public with guns. But Frey said the law has weaknesses.

"If they are coming together, if they are dressing in uniform and training in military tactics and collecting guns so they can force their own view of what society look like, Maine doesn't have a way to address that now in a meaningful way unless they start parading around with guns in public," Frey said.

As written, the bill, LD 2130, wouldn't apply to law enforcement or anyone receiving instruction in self-defense, for military service or as part of an educational institution's military component. It also could not be applied to instruction or training in firearms for any legal recreational activity, such as hunting or target shooting.

Those blanket exemptions are aimed at addressing concerns that the measure — which is modeled after laws already on the books in Vermont and other states — might violate free speech or 2nd Amendment rights.

But the ACLU of Maine raised concerns that the proposal, as originally written, could essentially force firearms instructors to guess why their students wanted training. The organization also raised concerns about making violations a felony offense. Democrats on the committee subsequently backed an altered version that would downgrade the violation to a Class D misdemeanor.

It was clear during Wednesday's committee meeting, however, that some lawmakers remain concerned about infringing rights to self-defense and gun ownership. Others, like Republican Rep. Bob Nutting of Oakland, worry about how it will be enforced – and against whom?

"I think there are problems with the bill," said Nutting. "My fear is that different prosecutors will treat gatherings differently."

The white supremacist leader who prompted the headlines last summer has since reportedly sold his land in Springfield, apparently in response to the reaction from local residents. But the co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Democratic Rep. Suzanne Salisbury of Westbrook, said she's concerned that Maine lacks the legal tools to respond to potentially violent groups.

"And we have a legitimate wau to move forward to address a potential issue that could happen -- a very scary issue," Salisbury said. "And I think we need to start from today, looking at what has happened recently in Maine and a way to address it."

The bill now goes to the full House and Senate for consideration. But Wednesday's debate in the committee suggests that the measure could face challenges even in a Democratic-controlled Legislature.