The concept of a militia is no stranger to the American canon. Traces of civilian-military forces go back as far as the 1600s during the Colonial Period, over a century before the 13 colonies declared independence from British rule on the 4th of July 1776. The Declaration of Independence was a pivotal act in the historical drama known as the American Revolution. With the infancy of a new nation came the drafting of a document that has stood the test of time — the Constitution of the United States.
The U.S. was far from the first country in history to establish and apply a constitution as the basis for its political system. A constitution at its core is a set of agreed-upon tenets, to provide a governmental skeletal frame on which some sort of society or organization is constructed. Nonetheless, there is an element of the U.S. Constitution that stands out among the rest — a single concept that upholds its structural integrity.
For the uninitiated, the United States can be considered more of an “experiment” than a country. The experiment, also known as the “Great American Experiment,” is one of individual freedom. The Founding Fathers, most of whom were of some sort of theistic/deistic inclination, determined that the rights and liberties of humankind were granted not by man but by a creator. Such an idea cements those rights as natural and transcendent above the edicts and statutes of man (in this case, the tyranny of the British Empire). Those rights could not be infringed. This is why the constitution is held in such high regard with the patriotic demographic of the U.S. public sphere.
The Founding Fathers designed the federal government to function as a limited entity in service to the people. The Constitution itself is what the entire executive, judicial, and legislative branches are held accountable to. If that document is upheld, there could never be a monarch or king that abused their power, and the government would always be under a checks and balances system that preserves the natural law of the constitution. This is noted in the section titled “The Preamble to The Bill of Rights.”
“The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
On the 15th of December 1791, Congress amended the U.S. Constitution to include the Bill of Rights — a series of amendments that established clarity on the limitations of governmental power and the natural rights owed to citizens. One of those amendments, the Second, is famously known as the “right to bear arms.” It reads:
“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.”
This amendment is arguably one of the most controversial and contested components of the U.S. Constitution. In its very essence, the Second Amendment gives citizens the ability to form militias in the semblance of the local volunteer forces who fought the British in the American Revolution. It also grants the people the right to “keep and bear arms,” meaning they can lawfully possess firearms to use for self-defense and the defense of the country. This idea draws on the inalienable rights clause and promotes the sanctity of human life.
Going back to the forming of militias part, the Second Amendment’s functions keep the government in check in the case that it becomes tyrannical or oppressive. States having their own militias and citizens armed to the teeth were imagined to be a natural balance against the republic’s armed forces. In the forefather’s eyes, the nation’s military is only meant to defend against foreign enemies, and the local militias were for domestic matters.
The current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment has been the subject of much controversy and argument both in the judicial system and the American public. The majority of conflict is over the “right to bear arms clause,” with a strict divide between the pro-gun and pro-gun control camps. But while personal gun ownership has been a common staple throughout the history of the nation, the concept of a militia is an area of legal contest.
The government’s answer to a well-regulated militia is the United States National Guard, a volunteer reserve force that was activated countrywide in 1903. The National Guard falls under both the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force. It receives adequate government support as part of the annual national defense budget. In times of domestic hardship, the National Guard can be activated by the state governors or the president.
This has happened throughout the nation’s history. The Guard was most recently called to act as a protective force in cities affected by intense rioting during the ongoing social unrest that is driven by racial relations. The same social unrest that has led to the National Guards’ activation has created less conventional militia movements throughout the U.S. These controversial groups have their own mission and are subject to questioning in terms of legitimacy and legality. Nevertheless, two of them, the American Militia and Patriot Movements, are currently growing in strength and numbers.
The modern militia movements are still rather young compared to their ancestral counterparts. The motivation behind their creation was two domestic events that resulted in a governmental intervention.
The first of those two events was Ruby Ridge, an 11-day standoff that took place in Idaho from the 21st to the 31st of August 1992. Ex-Green Beret Randy Weaver was a man who subscribed to a doomsday-esque conspiracy theory derived from fundamentalist religious practices he and his family followed. His belief on impending doom led Weaver and his family to move off the grid onto a remote property in Idaho.
Weaver was the eventual subject of a federal investigation after being reported for reciting threatening rhetoric towards President Reagan and other government employees. This investigation led to the eventual arrest and indictment of Weaver for the manufacturing and possession of illegal weapons. Weaver had been amassing a personal arsenal in allegiance to his conspiratorial beliefs. This got the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) and the FBI involved.
A trial date was set for February of 1991, but Weaver never showed up. This led to a warrant being carried out for his arrest. The known intelligence about his compound, arsenal, and views on the government was factored in the sensitive operation to detain him. The U.S. Marshals utilized undercover officers to try and infiltrate his property and make the arrest.
On the first day of the siege, U.S. Marshals mistakenly alarmed Weaver while conducting reconnaissance. A firefight broke out resulting in the deaths of one U.S Marshal, Weaver’s 14-year-old son Sammy, and one of his family dogs. Weaver barricaded his family in the cabin while hundreds of law enforcement officers from multiple agencies swarmed the property. A few days later, an FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife Vicki while simultaneously injuring him and his friend Kevin Harris.
On the 31st of August, the stand-off ended with Weaver surrendering after being persuaded by a Green Beret named Bo Gritz. He had been brought in by law enforcement in an attempt to connect the two men over a shared experience. The siege resulted in protests and demonstrations in opposition to the government’s actions that led to the killing of Vicki and Sammy Weaver.
In 1993, the year after Ruby Ridge, federal law enforcement became once again engaged in a stand-off plotline. In the city of Waco, Texas, a man named David Koresh was the spiritual leader of an offshoot sect of Christianity called the “Branch Davidians.” This sect held extreme and literalist views of Christian scripture and viewed Koresh as a Messianic figure who was leading them through the fulfillment of a claimed biblical prophecy. Koresh and his people resided at the Mount Carmel Center, a compound on the outskirts of Waco.
Koresh was importing and storing large quantities of illegal firearms and ammunition within the walls of Mount Carmel. That was eventually brought to the attention of the ATF through a local tip. The ATF conducted a raid on the compound on the 28th of February 1993. It resulted in multiple deaths on both sides.
In a similar fashion to Ruby Ridge, hundreds of federal law enforcement agents surrounded the compound and began attempts to negotiate with Koresh. The FBI Hostage Rescue and negotiation teams were unsuccessful at de-escalating the stand-off. This failure was later met with great public scrutiny.
The siege ended on April 19, 1993, after the FBI utilized tanks to penetrate the compound followed by canisters of tear gas. After finally breaking through, federal officers were able to enter Mount Carmel and investigate. Seventy-six bodies were discovered; the cause of death was either suicide or murder-suicide. Koresh was among those, as were 25 children.
Rise of the Militia
Ruby Ridge and the Waco Siege represent a gross violation of government overstep in the eyes of some factions within the far-right side of the political spectrum. Starting around 1993, informal militia groups began organizing across the U.S. These groups were formed under the powers granted by the Second Amendment and through disdain for the state of the U.S. government’s size and strength. Although each militia group is different, there are common values and ideas that bond them together:
- Gun ownership, knowledge, and activism are paramount to modern militia members: They have a high emphasis on propping up and donating to organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA). These organizations will further their interests and lobby for the preservation of their Second Amendment rights on the local and national legislative stage. A huge point of contention with the Ruby Ridge and Waco Sieges was the charges leveled against Weaver and Koresh in regard to illegal gun possession. In the realm of a “constitutional absolutist,” as so many militia members self-label as, there is no such thing as an illegal gun. Their interpretation of the Second Amendment does not exclude guns that are manufactured by the hands of a private individual or entity. Militia groups distribute messages to their members promoting the importance of maintaining firearms training, and there is an emphasis on stockpiling weapons and ammunition in preparation for the time when they may need to use them. The protection of the Second Amendment is one of the most important issues in this community.
- Anti-government Thought: As mentioned earlier, militia groups are opposed to a government that is excessive in size or unable to preserve the rights of the people. The militiaman’s duty, in their eyes, is to actively fight and remove a government that is tyrannical or a threat to the people, all in the name of preserving freedom and upholding the U.S. Constitution. The commonly shared vitriol extends to federal agencies like the FBI, ATF, DHS, and NSA, which they view as threatening to a free nation. The Libertarian political philosophy is a good basis in which to examine militia group attitudes towards government, although with more of a fringe and extreme spin on it.
- Conspiracy Theories: It is not all-encompassing, but there is a heavy overlap between militia groups and conspiracy theories. A common example is a theory that the recent increase in globalization and calls for gun control are part of a shadow government conspiracy to bring forth the New World Order which is will be a one-party government that will essentially enslave the world. That theory, among others, has drawn ideas from Christian thought, which they strongly misinterpret. Their views of traditional biblical scripture are in opposition to the commonly accepted theological and academic doctrine. There are many parallels between the QAnon conspiracy theory and far-right militia organizations.
- Doomsday prepping & tactical training: Similarly to their deep involvement in firearms and Second Amendment culture, modern militia groups are equally invested in the development and retainment of survival and tactical skills. A significant portion of the militia community resides in rural and less urban environments where there is a cultural emphasis on outdoor skills, hunting, and fishing. Likewise, there is a significant population of militia members who are active duty or veterans. Those members are commonly in positions of leadership within the organizations and offer their own skills and knowledge to their fellow militiamen. Doomsday prepping includes the mass storage of goods and construction of personal infrastructure in the case of a global “doomsday event” such as an international conflict, nuclear attack, or a tyrannical and out of control government.
To recap, the U.S. constitution has a unique clause that is commonly interpreted to allow for the formation and activation of local militia groups. These groups have a primary duty of upholding the constitution and preventing the rise and take-over of the country by a tyrannical government that would operate outside of the checks and balances system. The contemporary militia movement has been growing since the early 1990s and has had surges in activity and enlistment during the recent periods of political instability and civil unrest in the U.S.
Oaths & Percentages
The first rise in the modern militia movement was during the Obama Administration (2008 – 2016). The progressive politics and policies of President Obama were viewed as an existential threat to the Second Amendment and the social fabric of the nation. Out of the myriad of small militia groups and similar organizations, there are two that were formed during that period and that are the largest in the nation.
The Oath Keepers are a national organization formed in 2008 by Army veteran and Yale graduate Stewart Rhodes. The organization itself does not identify as a “militia” in the traditional sense, but it is a large benefactor within that community and shares the same views and values. As referenced on their homepage: “Oath Keepers is a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.'”
That oath, mandated by Article VI of the Constitution itself, is to the Constitution, not to the politicians. As such, Oath Keepers declare that they will not obey unconstitutional orders, such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as “enemy combatants” in violation of the ancient right to a jury trial.
While the exact number of members is not public knowledge, they claim that they are around 30,000-strong. That number is up for dispute by some researchers of the group. There is heavy marketing towards military personnel, veterans, and law enforcement, but being one is not a requirement to join.
The Three Percenters were formed in 2008 by Oath Keepers member Michael “Mike” Brian Vanderboegh. The two groups are loosely yet not officially connected. According to their official website: “‘The Three Percenters – Original’ is a national organization made up of patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty. We are committed to standing against and exposing corruption and injustice.”
When it comes to values and ideology, the Three Percenters have similarities to the Oath Keepers: the defense of the Second Amendment, an anti-government sentiment, and the promotion of an armed and politically informed public. They do not claim to be a militia. They have chapters spanning across the country. The term “3 Percenter” has its roots in the groups claim that only 3 percent of the population fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.
These two organizations are part of a national community that involves smaller militias. Most of them are active in the Midwest and South. Collectively, these groups are currently a part of the national conversation in the U.S., primarily considering recent actions during the ongoing social unrest.
It is not much of a secret, but America is having some issues right now. Ever since the controversial 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump, there has been an ever-growing divide between political ideologies and social justice views. Tribalism and deeply rooted beliefs have manifested themselves in demonstrations and protests against the Trump Administration, as well as in counter-protests in support.
The current social unrest stems from protests against law enforcement, primarily local and state police. A string of incidents involving black citizens being killed at the hands of local police ignited the tensions already in place from the pandemic and political tribalism. These killings resulted in malevolent groups going to major urban centers with the intent of causing riots and anarchy under the guise of protest.
There is a distinct difference between the peaceful and social-oriented demonstrations and the violent and destructive ones, but either way, both have produced a furthering of the political divide. Cities like Portland, Seattle, Louisville, and Minneapolis have been the subject of property destruction, violence, and brutal clashes between protestors, counter-protestors, and law enforcement.
Armed militia groups have started to show up in cities rife with rioting, looting, and destruction of property. This was done in defiance of local law enforcement and as a practical demonstration of the ideologies these groups subscribe to. Militia members from the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and affiliate groups have been seen at protests. They have been heavily armed (firearms and tactical kit) and in a defensive posture. While the militiamen have remained generally peaceful, a recent incident added to the social chaos.
A police shooting of a black man on the 23rd of August 2020 in Kenosha, WI led to civil unrest and rioting. On the 25th of August 2020, a teenager named Kyle Rittenhouse, who self-identified with the militia movement, shot and killed two protestors while injuring a third. The act was claimed to be in self-defense, as the rioters were in pursuit of Rittenhouse. Nonetheless, his actions brought up the question of the legality and purpose of vigilantism and of militia groups taking law into their own hands.
In the coming months leading up to the November 2020 presidential election, there will highly likely continue to be an increase in self-identifying militiamen and organizations. No matter what the outcome of the election, civil unrest is likely going to continue amid the aforementioned tensions that have been building up for years.
In the case that riots continue, and politics divide the nation more, it is likely that militia groups will view that as a threat to the nation’s security. In the case that the presidency is won by Democratic candidate Joe Biden, right-wing groups will perceive a larger threat to the constitution due to the Democrats’ increasingly progressive nature and open talk of swiftly legislating long-desired gun control measures.
One can only hope that something can re-unify the United States. The unfortunate reality is that some feel it is already too late…
This article was written by Michael Ellmer and originally published on Grey Dynamics.