News, Oregon, Salem

Oregon lawmakers aim to address domestic terrorism and paramilitary activity 

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

Oregon is a hotspot for domestic terrorism and paramilitary activity. Armed militia groups have taken over public land and terrorists have targeted the electric grid.

State lawmakers are responding to such threats with two bills that would address an individual act of domestic terrorism and coordinated paramilitary activity. The proposals follow unrest in Oregon in recent years and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021. 

The Oregon Secretary of State flagged the growing threat in a 2022 report, which found the state had the sixth highest number of domestic violent extremism incidents in the nation from 2011 to 2020. The report urged lawmakers to take action because Oregon is one of just 16 states without a definition of domestic terrorism in the law.

At times, the violence can be lethal. Aaron “Jay” Danielson, 39, was shot and killed on Aug. 29, 2020 at a pro-Trump rally in Portland by Michael Reinoehl, who described himself as anti-fascist and said he provided security for racial justice protests, the Oregonian reported

Infrastructure damage also is often the goal. Electric substations in Oregon and western Washington have been attacked six times, at least twice with firearms, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported

One proposal, House Bill 2572, would address the threat and damages people face from paramilitary activity involving a group of three or more people who illegally prevent others from accessing public areas or exercising their lawful rights, such as voting. 

House Bill 2772 would make domestic terrorism a felony. It would apply regardless of whether an individual or group is involved, allowing the prosecution of so-called “lone wolf” terrorists who target people or property.

“This is a critical issue for folks of both parties and all political spectrums,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, chief sponsor of HB 2772, in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “We are always better and stronger when we have a safe public square in which to debate and deliberate and the increasing violence that’s making its way into the public square is unacceptable.”

House Bill 2572 was discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday and House Bill 2772 will be heard by the same committee on Wednesday.  

Here’s a look at both bills:

Unlawful paramilitary activity

Under House Bill 2572, unlawful paramilitary activity would require three or more people who operate as a unit with a coordinated command structure. The group, armed with firearms, explosives or other weapons, would be considered a paramilitary organization if it publicly patrolled, held drills or engaged in activities that could injure or kill. 

“I do believe this bill has the potential to create a relief valve ahead of what could be an increasingly violent political election cycle and keep our state from descending into further cycles of violence and chaos,” said Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, and the bill’s chief sponsor, in a presentation to the committee. “We have a unique opportunity to address this while we still have time and do this right.”

Under the bill, unlawful paramilitary activity could happen in several different scenarios. Those include: interfering with government operations, asserting authority over a person without the legal authority to do so or preventing a person from engaging in a lawful activity. 

Oregon already has a 40-year-old law that makes unlawful paramilitary activity a felony, which can carry up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $125,000 or both. 

But supporters of the bill say the state needs to better define the activity and make it enforceable.

One way the bill would do that is through potential civil penalties. The bill would allow the attorney general to take a paramilitary group to court and get a court order to stop the activity. The bill would allow private individuals to sue paramilitary participants in court for damages over their loss of access to a public space or ability to engage in a lawful activity, like voting, for example. Lawsuits could be filed even if criminal charges weren’t filed.

Grayber worked on the bill with the Oregon Department of Justice and Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. Together with the institute’s executive director, Mary McCord, she said the bill is “viewpoint neutral,” in that it targets actions, not the ideology of participants.

“This bill is not tied to any one political or partisan ideology,” Grayber said. “This policy applies to all incidents that meet the definition of paramilitary activity equally. Any claims to the contrary are at best misguided rhetoric and at worst attempting to play and feed people’s fears with misinformation.”

The bill doesn’t require a paramilitary group’s members to dress alike to meet the definition. Some movements, like the anti-government Three Percenters, have a logo; others don’t.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be dressed in matching uniforms or you have to have an insignia or a logo or patch,” McCord said.

The proposal also takes into account existing rights to carry a firearm openly and own firearms. The bill does not make it illegal simply to openly carry a firearm; other activity – such as intimidation – would have to be involved. For example, if an armed paramilitary group was patrolling a polling place, that would meet the bill’s definition of prohibited activity, McCord said.

The bill has exceptions for official military activities, self-defense programs, law enforcement and security training, firearms instruction classes and shooting ranges. 

Domestic terrorism bill

House Bill 2772 would make domestic terrorism a felony punishable by 10 years of prison, a $250,000 fine or both. 

The bill defines domestic terrorism as intentionally attempting to cause “catastrophic harm” that “results in extraordinary levels of death, injury, property damage or disruption of daily life.” The bill also says domestic terrorism is an activity that severely impacts the “population, infrastructure, environment, economy or government functioning” of Oregon.

The Secretary of State report’s recommendations called for Oregon to define domestic terrorism in the law. 

“Domestic terrorism is literally going after shared critical infrastructure with the intent to either solicit fear or to perhaps take society out for a little while,” Evans said.

While the recent electrical grid attacks is one example, that alone didn’t spur the legislation. The issue has been on Evans’ radar for several years now – and the Secretary of State report recommended action, he said.

While it’s important to prosecute the crime, Evans said he also hopes the bill will deter people from committing domestic terrorism.

Evans said the two bills are distinct. He said his bill does not require someone to be a member of a group, as radicalization can happen in different settings, such as one person through social media.

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