A group of masked men, shown here giving a Nazi salute, demonstrated outside the state Capitol in Augusta in August 2023, chanting “refugees go home.” Photo courtesy of Lance Tapley

A legislative committee deadlocked Wednesday on a bill to prohibit paramilitary activity that’s intended to cause a violent public disturbance.

The 6-6 vote by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which saw one Democrat break ranks and join Republicans to oppose the bill, foreshadows a tough floor fight when the bill is taken up by the House of Representatives in the coming weeks.

One absent committee member, Sen. David LaFountain, D-Winslow, has two days to cast his vote. While his vote could swing the committee recommendation either way, the narrow margin means the outcome of a floor vote is unpredictable.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Osher, D-Orono, is aimed at preventing any unauthorized paramilitary group from establishing a headquarters in Maine – something that Christopher Pohlhaus, a prominent neo-Nazi, said he was trying to do in the rural northern Maine town of Springfield last year. It also follows an increase in public displays of white nationalism around the state, including hateful literature drops and public rallies.

Rep. Nina Milliken, D-Blue Hill, voted against the bill and said she shares Republican concerns that it could be abused by activist prosecutors against people who have no intent on committing a crime or creating civil disorder, including people training for self-defense.

“If this becomes law, I am concerned about how it’s used practically on the ground,” said Milliken, raising the Philadelphia police department’s bombing of a group of black men who were collecting weapons and speaking out against police brutality in 1985. 


Attorney General Aaron Frey said that militias that don’t follow the orders of civilian leaders are currently prohibited under the Maine Constitution. But state statute only allows prosecutors to file charges if a group is parading in public with guns, or wearing uniforms designed to look like legitimate military uniforms.

“When Christopher Pohlhaus said he was going to form an army to take out the Jews, that did not give us enough to act on criminally based on what he was saying,” Frey said. “Maine doesn’t have a way to address that now in a meaningful way unless they start parading around with guns in public.”

Amid mounting publicity, Pohlhaus sold his land in Springfield, but suggested that he may buy more land without his name attached.

Frey also pointed a 2021 incident in which 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.

But Frey said that had they made it to Maine, there would have been little authorities here could have done.


“If we got evidence of that, the office would not have had a civil remedy to go in and stop them from training as a paramilitary group,” Frey said.

If adopted, Maine would join 25 other states with similar prohibitions against paramilitary training.

As drafted, L.D. 2130 would prohibit paramilitary training, including the use and manufacture of firearms and explosives and other tactics, if the trainer “knows or reasonably should know” that the activity “is intended to be used in the furtherance of civil disorder.” It also would create a new felony and allow the attorney general to seek a civil injunction to stop unauthorized paramilitary activity.

Committee Democrats recommended a version of the bill that would make it clear that prohibited activities would include only trainings intended to cause civil disorder and that did not include the proposed new felony charge – changes advocated by the ACLU of Maine at a public hearing last week.

Frey entertained a variety of hypothetical scenarios as lawmakers tried to envision how the law might be used, even while insisting each case would depend on the facts and the quality of the evidence collected.

Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Dover Foxcroft, wondered if a group of two or three men who trained to protect a local church could be prosecuted under the law if they used their guns in self-defense during an attack. Frey said they would not likely be charged, unless their intent was to cause civil disorder through violence.

But those assurances were not enough for bring Republicans on board.

“I don’t think we’re going to come together on this,” said Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. “My fear is that different prosecutors will treat gatherings differently. I think this isn’t just looking at militias that are out in the woods in northern Maine, and I think it could very well deal with groups or individuals in larger cities in Maine that did something similar and were not known publicly as militias.”

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