Officially, a militia is part of the organized armed forces of a country that is called upon only in an emergency. There have been paramilitary groups with revolutionary ideas throughout America’s history, but today’s militia movement is a new more organized and violent presence (Meyers). Today the militia are unofficial citizens’ armies organized by private individuals, usually with antigovernment, far right agendas. They rationalize that the American people need armed force to help defend themselves against an increasingly oppressive government that is becoming part of a global conspiracy called the “New World Order” (Sonder, 2000). These armed groups call themselves militias; to both imply the image of the Minuteman of the Revolution and to try to claim legitimacy by asserting that these paramilitary groups were the “unorganized militia” of federal and state law. The causes for the militia movement are many, but most center around a fear of gun confiscation and the role such confiscation would play in their various one-world conspiracy theories.
The major events, which helped to incite the movement, include the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs, the Brady Law and the Assault Weapons Manufacture Ban. The first groups began forming at the end of 1993; by mid-1994 (Sonder, 2000) there were a variety of such groups in many states across the country. While the media noted the emergence of this movement, little attention was paid to the phenomenon until late 1994, when civil rights organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League released reports on the militia movement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center most of these citizens’ armies have few members and are not involved in violent activities (Sonder, 2000). They are interested mostly in the purchase and use of firearms, in discussions of patriotism, and in playing weekend war games. However, there are more than a hundred of these groups, which probably have ties to violent right wing and racist organizations.
The militia exploded into prominence, however, in April 1995 when early reports indicated that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombing suspects, had belonged to a Michigan militia, or that militia groups were in some way directly connected to the bombing. As a result, nearly every newspaper and television station began looking at local militia groups. By and large, the intense publicity caused the movement to grow, as many would-be sympathizers heard about the existence of the movement for the first time. Militia growth appears to have been steady throughout 1995 and the first half of 1996 (Sonder, 2000).
The primary illegal activities among militia groups are related to weapons and explosives. Militia groups in Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, California, and a number of other states have seen members arrested for possession of illegal weapons and explosives. People in the movement tend to give inflated numbers, in order to make their movement seem larger, and at the same time, because they are so paranoid, will refuse to allow people to actually count their numbers. In addition, groups go in and out of existence all the time, and there are many people who are part of the movement, without being card-carrying members of any one particular group. There are some groups few people know about because they are underground. All these factors together make it impossible to say with any certainty how many militia groups there are. The number of groups is certainly in the hundreds.
The militia movement has many people who could be called law-abiding citizens. However, many members conduct criminal activity (Dees, 1996). The most common is the collection of illegal weapons and explosives. Sometimes these illegal arsenals are stunning in their size. Since militia members tend to believe that they have the right to own whatever sort of weapon they want to, and they need to arm themselves to oppose a current or future tyrannical government, as a result many of them to decide to acquire illegal weapons such as machine guns, fully automatic weapons, silencers, sawed off shotguns, and explosives. Some members go further than collecting weapons and actually plan to use them. In the past few years, different militia groups have plotted to bomb various government buildings, to attack U.S. military bases, and to commit other acts of terrorism. As a result, the militia movement contains many people willing to commit criminal acts (Dees, 1996).
The militia movement claims to be the militia mentioned in the Constitution and federal and state law, but they are not. They are private, unregulated paramilitary groups. Currently, there is no federal law regarding paramilitary groups. Of the fifty states, about 80% have some sort of law prohibiting such groups (Dees, 1996). Most states have laws, which only prohibit paramilitary training to cause civil disorder. In these states you would be breaking the law if you conducted paramilitary training for the purposes of blowing up a building, but not if you were doing it for no particular purpose. Other states have laws that prohibit any paramilitary group that is formed without the permission of the state government. Occasionally these laws have been enforced, but in general, most states have not bothered to enforce them.
Congress finally passed the Anti-Terrorism Law of 1996; it contained provisions relating to domestic terrorism. Some of these provisions were:
Creating a federal death penalty for terrorists murders
Making crimes against a federal employee a federal offense and increasing penalties for these crimes
Stiffening penalties for conspiracies involving explosives
Adding penalties for possession of nuclear material
Criminalizing the use of chemical weapons
Asking the attorney general to issue a report on whether bomb making literature is protected by the First Amendment
Giving the secretary of state authorization to identify a group as terrorist and forbid them from raising funds, they can also freeze the assets of such organizations
Offering restitution to victims of some federal crimes
Authorizing more than $1 billion over five years for federal, state, and local government programs designed to prevent or deal with terrorists.
After the Anti-Terrorism Law of 1996 was passed militia violence continued throughout the United States, but none of activities seemed organized on a large scale (Sonder, 2000). This could be due to increased pressures on the movement by the new law, which forced the militia further underground.
Dees, Morris, (1996), Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat.
Meyers, Leisa, Militia Movement, Microsoft Encarta 2001 CD-ROM
Sonder, Ben, (2000) The Militia Movement: Fighters Of The Far Right