A group of masked men, shown here giving a Nazi salute, demonstrated outside the state Capitol in Augusta last August, chanting “refugees go home.” Courtesy of Lance Tapley

AUGUSTA — Democrats in the Maine House abruptly postponed a vote Thursday to ban paramilitary activity by groups intending to cause civil disorder, tabling the measure because they were concerned they lacked the votes to move the bill forward.

“We didn’t count the votes before we went in,” said Rep. Laurie Osher, D-Orono, the bill’s sponsor. “We may have been able to pass it today by one vote. But if we lost by one vote, that would have been it.”

The measure passed by six votes in an initial vote in the House last week, but 24 lawmakers were absent at the time and the outcome of a second and final House vote was uncertain. The Maine Senate passed the bill in an 18-14 vote that is not subject to change because of absences.

House Republicans have been unified against the bill and were joined by six Democrats in the first vote. The final House vote was scheduled to occur Thursday, but the absence of seven Democrats and one Republican led supporters of the bill to table the measure during the floor debate over fears they might not have enough support to pass it.

If approved, Maine would join 26 other states with similar laws, according to Jacob Glick, policy counsel with the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

Osher submitted her bill in response to efforts by Christopher Pohlhaus, a prominent neo-Nazi, to establish a paramilitary training center in the northern Maine town of Springfield. He later abandoned those plans amid public backlash that followed a Press Herald report on rising activity among hate organizations in Maine.


And in 2021, a group of armed men in uniforms calling themselves the Rise of the Moors was traveling to Maine with the stated goal of paramilitary training. That group was apprehended in Massachusetts after an armed standoff along Interstate 95. They did not have licenses to carry firearms in that state.

Attorney General Aaron Frey says Maine does not have an effective way to stop such activity.

Osher’s bill would allow the attorney general to seek a court order to stop such activity if the state can prove that a person is “intentionally or knowingly” using their training to cause civil disorder, which is defined as “any public disturbance involving an act of violence by a group of two or more persons that causes an immediate danger of injury to another person or damage to the property of another person or results in injury to another person or damage to the property of another person.”

A violation would occur if someone assembled two or more people, or instructs another person in “the use, application or making of a firearm, explosive or incendiary device capable of causing injury to or the death of, or techniques capable of causing injury to or the death of, another person if the person teaching, training or demonstrating intends or knows that the teaching, training or demonstrating is intended to be used by the other person in or in furtherance of civil disorder.”

Individuals could be charged with a Class D misdemeanor, which carries fines of $500 to $1,000 and up to a year in jail.

Republicans oppose the proposal, arguing that it infringes on an individual’s First Amendment right to free speech and association and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. They say standards in the bill are too subjective and could be applied unevenly throughout the state, potentially affecting such activities as self-defense and outdoor survival courses.


“Madam Speaker, this bill creates a thought crime,” said House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor. “This bill is an issue where the left and the right can come together and oppose this because it’s about our constitutional liberties.”

Some worried that the bill, L.D. 2130, would put firearm instructors in a difficult position.

“It asks for firearm instructors to know or assume intent to cause civil (disorder),” said Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn. “It is not our job to manage Maine citizens’ speech. It is our job to protect that right to free speech, whether or not we like what they’re saying.”

Democrats accused Republicans of mischaracterizing the bill.

Rep. Daniel Sayre, D-Kennebunk, said the bill would not impact local scouting or camping troops or firearm instruction. Nor would it affect activities of groups such as the VFW or American Legion, he said.

“Those concerns are not germane to this bill,” Sayre said. “It sets a very high bar for what unauthorized paramilitary training is. … These are things that would have to be proven in a court of law.”

Rep. Daniel Ankeles, D-Brunswick, who identified himself as one of six Jewish members in the Legislature, said the bill balances individual liberties with public safety. He pointed to the heated political environment, including recent international coverage in the right-leaning Daily Mail of a new apartment building being built in his district that will be used to house asylum seekers for the next two years.

“It makes me feel very unsafe to wonder what kind of people are out there thinking about causing extreme violence in my own legislative district,” Ankeles said. “I just feel that we really need to understand that burden of proof is incredibly high for a crime like this, and this is an important tool for law enforcement to have.”

Part way through the debate, House Majority Leader Mo Terry, D-Gorham, moved to table the bill. It’s unclear when the House will take it up again.

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