A photograph of a group of men in balaclavas outside the Maine State Capitol last summer, hands raised in a Nazi salute, holding a large banner that read “KEEP NEW ENGLAND WHITE” accompanied our reporting this past week on the fate of a bill that undertakes to do something one would think uncontroversial: to ban paramilitary training camps intended to create civil disorder.

Let us be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with the spirit or intent of this bill.

By Thursday evening, however, it was floating in space. A vote was postponed at the last minute by House Democrats who had legitimate concerns that the bill did not have enough support to pass.

House Republicans almost unanimously oppose the proposal, citing concerns to do with the right to free speech, free association and the right to bear arms. They have suggested the legislation would be wrongly applied, resulting in misplaced Class D misdemeanors for those leading camping troops, Scouting, outdoor survival courses, self-defense training, the activities of veterans’ groups or other endeavors.

Spurious concerns about the law’s application should be quieted by its very wording, which features a reassuring definition of “civil disorder” 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.”

The outside risk of infringement of certain constitutional liberties, if present, is a risk that can be mitigated by more cautious, tighter drafting of the provisions to do with intent, reasonable knowledge and the bearing of arms. If other states have successfully done it – and, by one expert analysis, a majority of states (26) has – why can’t we?

So long as Maine’s opponents of L.D. 2130 are satisfied that its aims are sound, they should be advocating for appropriate changes to precise wording of the bill as drafted, allowing it to be faithful to those aims. So far, we haven’t heard much in the line of suggestions for its strengthening. That opposed legislators’ preferred course is, apparently, to walk away, to abandon the bill in its entirety, should come as a serious disappointment to all Mainers.

The aims of the bill are sound. The bill is proportionate. And there’s a clear reason it’s being introduced now; hate groups, like the one represented in Augusta last August – aggrieved groups of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists – are organizing and becoming more visible in our state. Ignoring this dark reality is not an option. One leading extremist for a time had a plan to establish a paramilitary group “headquarters” in Springfield, which came to light last year. 

As it stands, such a base could legally be established in Maine. That’s a live risk, and it’s abysmal that – out of conservative stubbornness, a lack of will or reckless disregard for the public interest – many of our state lawmakers would have us run it.

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