HELENA — A Republican legislator said Friday that Montana needs an armed paramilitary group of volunteers to help authorities in emergencies, a proposal favored by gun rights advocates and conservative lawmakers skeptical of the federal government.
Rep. Wendy Warburton, of Havre, told the House State Administration Committee that House Bill 278 would let residents organize military-like companies called "home guards" that would answer to the governor and sheriffs during emergencies.
Warburton said slow response and poor organization during major emergencies in the past prompted her to sponsor the bill.
"Really the bill is just about local volunteers being prepared in case of emergency to support the National Guard, support the sheriff, support the governor as needed," Warburton said.
Supporters said the bill is not about arming citizens but to provide additional emergency services as some other states do.
A number of states have a state defense force like a "home guard" for responding to emergencies but few states have an armed force like the bill proposes.
The panel didn't vote on the measure, although some on the committee raised concerns that the armed residents could subvert the chain of command.
The measure drew opposition from the Montana Human Rights Network's Jamee Greer, who said the proposed bill could be abused by anti-government extremists because it didn't provide for enough oversight of the paramilitary groups.
The bill would allow the "home guard" organizations to be formed in companies each with their own uniforms, flags and identities. Its language also would allow them to form into "infantry companies."
Both provisions were items Greer found troubling because they left room for abuse.
The "home guard" would not be subject to federal oversight and a company would only be recognized if certified by the governor. Creating the paramilitary groups would cost the state about $45,000 per year for the first few years, and the state would be required to pay for damaged equipment used by the groups during active duty.
This bill was one of several bills put forward by conservative lawmakers this session that emphasize smaller government, attempt to bolster individual rights and take a skeptical view of the federal government. Others include the so-called "Sheriffs First" bill, which would give sheriffs authority over federal arrests and several gun-rights bills.
The measures have the support of tea party and gun rights groups.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said he supported this and the other bills as a way of shifting power from government to the people.
"The question here is where that slider is located on that range between anarchy and tyranny," Marbut said. "We'd like to nudge it back a little toward anarchy."