Bill lifting Idaho’s primary militia ban passes Idaho House

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho House resoundingly passed a bill that would repeal the state’s primary law banning private militias on Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Joe Palmer of Meridian, arose as part of the Idaho Military Division’s efforts to comply with Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s “Red Tape Reduction Act,” which instructs state agencies to identify unnecessary laws and rules so they can be removed from state code.

Palmer told his House colleagues that the law is “antiquated legislation” that has never been used in Idaho, though similar laws have been used in other states.

“It basically does a couple things that are being removed,” Palmer said. “It prohibits a body of men from associating themselves together as a military company or organization.”

Palmer also said there’s no enforcement mechanism for the law, and so law enforcement couldn’t use it to target or prosecute private militias. Idaho already has other laws that allow that, he said.

However, the law does allow for civil enforcement, Idaho National Guard Maj. Steve Stokes told a lawmaker committee during a bill hearing last week. That means private citizens who were harmed in some way by private militias would be able to sue over the conduct.

And while it doesn’t appear that has happened yet in Idaho, organizations in other states have used similar laws to target paramilitary groups after violent events, like the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. In that case, a jury ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages after they were sued by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations.

Idaho residents have used civil litigation to drive out at least one paramilitary organization in recent history. The white supremacist group Aryan Nationals built a compound near Hayden, but lost the property to bankruptcy after losing a $6.3 million civil lawsuit in 2000. The personal injury lawsuit was filed after members of the Aryan Nations chased, assaulted and shot at a mother and son on a dirt road outside the compound in 1998.

During debate on the House floor, Boise Democratic Rep. John Gannon said now is not the time to repeal the anti-militia law, noting it was put into place a few years after then-Gov. Frank Steunenberg was assassinated by Harry Orchard in a culmination of violent mining labor confrontations between pro-union forces and those who opposed the mine workers’ federation.

“In fact it should stay on the books — it’s been there for over a century and there are reasons for this,” Gannon said.

The anti-militia law that would be repealed also includes provisions prohibiting a town from raising its own paramilitary organization, Gannon said.

“This isn’t the kind of message that I think we want to send,” Gannon said.

The bill passed on near party lines, with Republican Rep. Linda Hartgen from Twin Falls and the 12 Democratic representatives voting no. It now goes to the Senate.

Rebecca Boone
Rebecca Boone
Rebecca is a correspondent based in Idaho.