BISMARCK, N.D. — A bill aiming to ban weapons of all forms from being attached to drones flown in North Dakota failed to pass a state House vote Tuesday.
House Bill 1167 sought to close a loophole allowing nonlethal and less-than-lethal weapons, such as Tasers and tear gas launchers, to be installed on unmanned aircraft. It failed by a vote of 36-56 after about 15 minutes of floor discussion.
The bill arrived in the House chambers on Tuesday morning with a “do not pass” recommendation from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Members noted the group’s decision to recommend not passing the bill came down to a desire for more specificity in the legislation and a question of if more regulation is needed.
“We need to take a step back and ask a question, ‘Is this necessary?'” Committee Chairman Rep. Kim Koppleman, R-West Fargo, said. “Law enforcement has already said they have no intent to do this. Do we want to forever tie their hands? Because remember, the only people in the state of North Dakota restricted by our law in terms of what they can do with a drone in this regard are our law enforcement officials. Think about that.”
North Dakota law currently prohibits outfitting drones with lethal weapons and requires law enforcement agencies to acquire a warrant if they plan to use an unmanned aircraft for surveillance, both requirements stemming from legislation authored by Republican Rep. Rick Becker from Bismarck.
Becker, also the author of HB 1167, pushed back Tuesday on the committee’s recommendation during discussion.
“The bill in no way hinders the use of drones for law enforcement for a number circumstances,” Becker said.
He told fellow lawmakers that the bill clears up confusion on the types weapons allowed by prohibiting a drone from being outfitted with any. Changing that language would close a loophole left open during the previous legislative session after law enforcement lobbyists pushed for the option of nonlethal weapons.
“My concern is when we allow drones to deploy a weapon, we take out the humanity. We take out the decision-making of the boots on the ground,” Becker said.
He cited examples of deploying weaponized drones controlled by pilots miles away from a situation. Under current federal laws, such a scenario is illegal as drones cannot fly beyond the line of their pilot’s sight.
Beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight is being pioneered in North Dakota through special research permissions granted by the Federal Aviation Administration, but those capabilities likely won’t be opened to the whole industry for months or even years to come.
Law enforcement officials involved in drone activities in Grand Forks have repeatedly told the press they’re not interested in weaponizing drones, and Becker read their comments to fellow lawmakers before noting that a lobbyist for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association pushed to keep the option open for nonlethal weapons in the last session.
This year, representatives for the association spoke out against the second portion of the bill, which creates a new section in the state’s Century Code to allow civil recourse for those who believe a drone has been used in an unlawful manner against them.
Becker said that portion of the bill was not his main concern and could be adjusted in order to pass the weapons ban — a sentiment he said others had seemed to agree with while saying the main portion of the bill was fine.
“I’m a little bit at a loss here,” Becker said after representatives opposing the bill spoke.