Vt. bill takes aim at Slate Ridge, militia training camps

Published: Jan. 10, 2023 at 5:33 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A new bill before Vermont lawmakers takes aim at paramilitary training camps, making it illegal to operate facilities like the controversial Slate Ridge facility in Pawlet.

Slate Ridge is back in the spotlight -- this time under Vermont’s golden dome instead of a courtroom.

“In the event that someone sets up a training camp whose sole goal is to train people to attack other people with real weapons -- that’s something we need to take a hard look at,” said Senate President Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County.

A bill before lawmakers would ban paramilitary training camps. It targets Slate Ridge, an unpermitted firing range in West Pawlet that’s been in and out of the courts for violation of local planning and zoning regulations. Neighbors in the area for years raised alarm bells about noise and alleged threats from its owner, Daniel Banyai, who claimed to be stockpiling weapons and advertised his training services to militia groups. But top law Vermont enforcement agencies said Banyai was not breaking any criminal laws.

“We’ve briefed legislators on our overall threat mitigation posture, how investigations work, and what we can investigate,” Former Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michel Schirling said in October 2020.

Now, Baruth says he wants to give the state more tools to crack down on Slate Ridge and places like it. “In Vermont, we don’t want people starting a camp where they advertise out of state or in state, where they learn to come and attack others,” he said.

But the measure has drawn the ire of Second Amendment advocates. Representative Brian Smith, R-Derby, calls it a slippery slope. “You can be on the offense, you can be on the defense. If you’re not breaking any laws, then have the training. Anyone that wants to learn this type of training should be allowed to do it,” Smith said.

“I think it’s probably likely to be found constitutional if it is carefully drawn,” said Peter Teachout, a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School. He says the state and federal constitutions make a distinction between the individual’s right to own and bear arms and engaging in military-style activity without state support. “both the federal and state constitution have specific provisions for a well-regulated militia and that means regulated by government authorities.”

Teachout also points to the 1886 Supreme Court decision Presser v. Illinois which says states can ban private citizens from forming military training groups. He also adds that the bill needs to be aimed at the conduct at Slate Ridge, not the rhetoric and speech of its supporters which would be protected under the First Amendment.

Banyai is currently in state court contesting civil contempt charges following a failure to remove unpermitted structures from his property

The bill wasn’t taken up last session and it’s not clear if it will be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Baruth says he wants lawmakers to be prepared for the conversation when it happens.

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