Why Militias, Part of America’s Past, Are a Worry Today

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The self-styled militia groups raising alarm in the U.S. today draw inspiration from the early days of the republic, when civilian militias served as local defense forces and some fought alongside George Washington’s Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But today’s militias are associated with anti-government and (at times) White supremacist ideology, making noise during sometimes violent clashes with the authorities before receding from public view. One militia’s alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor in response to coronavirus lockdown measures put the groups back in the spotlight weeks before a presidential election.

1. What’s a militia?

The word has meant very different things in different eras of American history. In the country’s early days, able-bodied men often served in state militias overseen by civilian authorities to supplement federal forces and provide local security when needed. As a check against tyranny, they were given special protection in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Such state militias gradually ceded control to federal authorities and faded from existence, replaced by the U.S. National Guard and its mainly part-time reserve members overseen by state and federal officials. The word “militia” now describes loosely organized groups of civilians who usually share anti-government views and strongly support gun ownership. Some are even preparing for a new Civil War.

2. Are they legal?

Put it this way: There’s nothing inherently illegal about a militia or any other group of like-minded people, since the First Amendment guarantees the “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and the Second Amendment generally protects the right to possess a firearm. But gun restrictions vary by state, most states have laws prohibiting paramilitary training for the purpose of carrying out civil disorder, and self-deploying a militia to carry out law enforcement duties is illegal everywhere. Enforcement can be sketchy, as when armed men, unchallenged by police, positioned themselves in some U.S. cities this year, ostensibly to protect property during Black Lives Matter protests.

3. Where did modern-day militias come from?

They emerged in the early 1990s after the election of President Bill Clinton, who along with many in his Democratic Party supported tougher gun-control laws. Many conservatives, especially in rural areas, feared the federal government would overstep its authority. The movement gained steam in 1992 after a boy and his mother were killed by federal agents in a standoff over firearms violations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. There was also the 1993 siege of a religious compound in Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of 82 members of the Branch Davidians, which was being investigated over suspected sexual abuse and firearms crimes. The 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by a movement sympathizer led to increased law-enforcement scrutiny of militias and a decline in their public activities. But the movement surged again after the election of another Democrat, President Barack Obama, renewed fears of more government restrictions on gun ownership.

4. Why are they back in the news?

Law enforcement officials accused 14 members of a militia called the Wolverine Watchmen of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and to try her for treason. Whitmer, a Democrat, had become a target of some conservatives for, in their view, trampling on individual freedoms with statewide orders to wear masks and stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier, an armed group in Wisconsin called the Kenosha Guard organized on Facebook to counter Black Lives Matter protesters, and in the ensuing clash, two of the protesters were shot dead. Some see the militant language of President Donald Trump as fueling the fire.

5. What is Trump’s role?

He accuses Democrats of trying to “steal” the election, says the only way he’ll lose is if the election is “rigged” and refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power. His son, Eric Trump, has called for “every able-bodied man, woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation.” Josh Ellis, who runs an online platform for self-styled militias across the country, told the Financial Times that Trump, as commander in chief, could “call to action the militias” if he believes the election was stolen. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the antigovernment group the Oath Keepers, told the Los Angeles Times that armed members will “be out on Election Day to protect people who are voting.”

6. How big is the movement?

It’s tough to know how many militias are operating at any given time, let alone how many people belong to them. Groups can form and vanish quickly or make themselves difficult to track by using secretive communications. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there were 181 militias active in 2019, among 576 “extreme anti-government groups.” Some experts say the real number is probably much higher. Some of the more prominent groups, according to the SPLC, are the Three Percenters (whose name reflects “the dubious historical claim that only 3 percent of American colonists fought against the British during the War of Independence”) and the Oath Keepers, which recruits current and former law enforcement, military and first-responder personnel.

7. How serious is the concern?

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Homeland Security Department, told senators in September that White supremacists have become the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the U.S. from within the country, though he didn’t specifically use the word militia. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University highlighted worries about “the affinity some police officers have shown for armed far-right militia groups.” The biggest threat may not be the groups themselves but so-called lone wolves, who could be radicalized by the groups and carry out plots on their own, not unlike Timothy McVeigh, who committed the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City.

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