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Idaho House clears bill to repeal a law banning private militias, paramilitary

by RYAN SUPPE Idaho Statesman
| February 25, 2022 7:00 AM

BOISE, Idaho — Controversial legislation that would repeal an Idaho statute prohibiting private militias cleared another hurdle Wednesday, when the House passed the bill with little debate.

House Bill 475, pushed by the Idaho National Guard and Gov. Brad Little, would remove a long-standing state law that serves as an obstruction to private militias. The statute forbids "a body of men," other than the National Guard, to "associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with firearms in any city or town of this state."

Legal experts, who have used similar statutes to bring civil suits against militias, flagged the bill when it was introduced by the Idaho National Guard last month. Attorneys from Boise and Washington, D.C., urged lawmakers to preserve the statute.

The House overwhelmingly passed the House Bill 475 on Wednesday on a near-party line vote. Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen, of Twin Falls, was the only Republican to oppose it.

"Peaceable assembly cannot be restricted," Rep. Joe Palmer, a Meridian Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a brief speech, closing debate in the full House after just one other lawmaker spoke.

Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, said the statute is "there for a reason." It also prohibits a city from supporting private armies, Gannon noted.

"That could be of concern if you had a city that was very small and, maybe, was influenced by one group or another and decided to take some kind of step to support a local armed group," he said.

Maj. Stephen Stokes, an attorney for the Idaho Military Division, said the statute is "unnecessary" and inapplicable to the Idaho Military Division. Military officials proposed repealing it as part of the Red Tape Reduction Act, a 2019 executive order by Little that directed state agencies to find ineffective or outdated rules to eliminate.

During an introductory hearing last month, Stokes said the statute violates First and Second Amendment rights. But in another hearing last week, Stokes acknowledged that courts have ruled similar statutes as constitutional. He maintained, though, that the statute is unenforceable, and that other Idaho statutes prohibit paramilitary activity.

All eight people who testified during last week's public hearing opposed the bill. Some were North Idaho residents who described the fear and uncertainty brought by self-deputized, armed citizens who took to the streets in 2020 amid nationwide protests against police violence.

Shawn Keenan, of Coeur d'Alene, recalled when armed vigilantes patrolled his city to protect the resort town from rumored rioting and violence, which did not materialize. Keenan said the vigilantes paraded the city for months.

"It was surreal," he said. "It was scary."

Others noted similar situations in more North Idaho cities. Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, a Democrat running for governor, said House Bill 475 is a "dangerous bill that doesn't make us safer" or protect constitutional rights.

"Playing politics with our fundamental rights like freedom of speech and our rights to own and carry a gun is cowardly and opportunistic," Rognstad said in a news release after the House passed the measure.

The bill now heads to the Senate.