Lawmaker panel advances bill lifting Idaho’s militia ban
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A panel of Idaho lawmakers has advanced a bill that would repeal the state’s primary law banning private militias.
The move from the House Transportation and Defense Committee came Wednesday afternoon after the lawmakers heard from several residents who said the legislation could dangerously embolden the paramilitary groups that already exist throughout the region.
The bill comes from Idaho National Guard general counsel Maj. Steve Stokes, who said it was part of an ongoing effort to eliminate laws and regulations that are considered unnecessary red tape, as directed by Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
The law, which says people can’t start their own military company and also bars cities and towns from creating a local paramilitary service, is overly broad, doesn’t include enforcement language and doesn’t apply to the Idaho Military Division, Stokes said. The law also prohibits parades by armed groups, with special carve-outs for military veterans, the Idaho National Guard and other organizations.
“Peaceful assembly cannot be restricted,” Stokes said, and other state laws already prohibit “unpeaceable assembly.”
Stokes said he couldn’t find any example of the anti-militia law being enforced in its nearly 100-year history. All 50 states have similar anti-militia laws on the books, and they have sometimes been used elsewhere to target extremist organizations.
Several Idaho residents urged the lawmakers to make the law stronger instead of repealing it.
Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad told the committee that the bill was dangerous because “it invites private militias that have no accountability to civil authority — they answer to no one.”
It’s a concern Sandpoint has seen firsthand, he said, when a group of high school students organized a human rights march a couple of summers ago and an unfounded rumor spread on social media that an “antifa gang” was going to attack Sandpoint. That prompted unregulated paramilitary groups to descend on the town, he said.
“A group of heavily armed people started patrolling our our little town, and many people in the community felt harassed and intimidated,” Rognstad told the lawmakers.
Shawn Keenan from Coeur d’Alene also urged the lawmakers to kill the bill, saying a few hundred heavily armed people staged a “weeklong occupation” of his city in 2020 in response to protests held across the country after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
“We were terrified,” Keenan said, with residents scared to eat downtown or enjoy the parks as the paramilitary activity continued. Motorcycle gangs from Spokane, Washington, soon joined the militia-like action, he said.
“Rowdy, and terrorizing the downtown and actually drinking at our bars with AR-15s on the bar top,” Keenan said of the group, comparing the scene to a movie set.
Rep. John Gannon, a Democrat from Boise, suggested that the bill be amended instead of repealed, because he said parts of it are “very important,” including the provision preventing towns from creating their own paramilitary groups. Otherwise, anti-government groups could cause problems just by first getting elected to city government in one of the state’s very small towns, he said.
Gannon appeared to be referencing “Almost Heaven,” a housing community in rural north-central Idaho planned in the early 1990s by Bo Gritz, a former military man who described himself as the inspiration for “Rambo.” Gritz envisioned a place where like-minded constitutionalists could live free from most government control — and would-be residents had to agree to a “covenant” in which they would stand and fight with each other if any resident’s constitutional rights be threatened.
The parcels quickly sold out, and while some of the residents seemed to just want a peaceful, rural lifestyle, others were soon filing documents with the local county attempting to renounce their U.S. citizenship and declare themselves as “sovereign citizens.” Another group of residents started a militia group that was later accused of plotting to kill a federal judge.
Gritz eventually moved away, and the community mostly faded into the background.
Rather than amend the law, the committee voted 13-4 to send it to the full House without a recommendation on whether it should pass.