Regulate paramilitary activity in Virginia

Regulate paramilitary activity in Virginia

Virginia_House_of_Delegates_chamber_2017

The General Assembly should correct its misstep by reintroducing similar legislation. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, the Virginia State Senate killed a bill in the Courts of Justice Committee that would have outlawed paramilitary groups, such as those at the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The bill — SB 987 — was sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. A priority for the Charlottesville City Council, the bill would have made the assembly with the intent to intimidate by “drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof” a Class 5 felony, carrying with it a fine of up to $2,500 and a maximum jail sentence of up to 10 years. SB 987 failed on a close eight to seven vote, with only Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Chesterfield) voting as the only Republican in support of the bill. This decision to kill SB 987 missed an opportunity to address public safety concerns in light of recent events. The General Assembly should correct its misstep by reintroducing similar legislation.

Committee chair Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) stated that he had some misgivings about the constitutionality of the bill in regards to the right of free assembly. This view does not, however, take into account the threat posed by paramilitary groups with vendettas against minority communities. Though Virginia already has a law prohibiting “unlawful paramilitary activity,” this new bill would have made it illegal to intend to simply intimidate others, tightening the range of activity allowed. In addition, Herring recently sponsored a new domestic terrorism bill with Delegate Marcia Price (D-Newport News), intending to give Virginia law enforcement more agency in naming groups as domestic terrorists — he directly names white supremacists and the threats they carry with his new bill. As Lucas said, militias surrounding the Unite the Right rally “were operating as unregulated, uncontrolled, unaccountable, self-controlled so-called security forces.” Had the Virginia Senate allowed this bill to become law, Virginia would have led the country in protecting its citizens from malicious paramilitary activity.

The threat that paramilitary groups, like those present at the Unite the Right rally, represents is real and the the General Assembly should address this danger. By blocking SB 987 from passage, the state government failed to address the violence that occured last August and dismissed the concerns minority communities have about their safety. 

At the local level, a movement is occurring to address these community concerns. The Charlottesville City Council, along with local businesses and community affiliates, voted in October to join a lawsuit filed after the events of last August by the Georgetown Law Institution for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection that was meant to prevent private militia groups from returning. Although the local government has attempted to direct efforts to this issue, the state government needs to take stronger action to address the threats presented instead of stopping bills that would only help prevent the rallies and protests from violent groups like those at Unite the Right.

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