Citizen Militias Essay

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Since September 11, 2001, public and political concerns have focused primarily on international terrorism and Al-Qaeda. It is surprising that domestic terrorism has been ignored, considering that it was an important social problem after the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was a right-wing extremist, and when he murdered 168 people on April 19, 1995, the government focused their terrorism efforts on domestic extremism generally and the militia movement specifically. Although there was clear evidence of the establishment of the militia movement in the early 1990s, one can conclude that the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the erroneous inference that McVeigh was a member of the militia movement, led to a public panic regarding this newly discovered group of domestic extremists.

The militia movement emerged in the 1990s, fueled by several significant policy issues and two tragic events. Key policy issues included federal legislation that limited gun rights. The two legislative initiatives of particular concern were waiting period legislation (the “Brady Bill”) and the semiautomatic assault weapons ban. Other salient political issues included the election of Bill Clinton as U.S. president, passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, enforcement of legislation to protect endangered species and the environment, and other statutes that limited individual property rights. Two events that were critical to the emergence and growth of the militia movement were the law enforcement-citizen standoffs at Ruby Ridge, involving Randy Weaver and his family in northern Idaho, and of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. These two events, both of which involved federal law enforcement agents attempting to enforce gun laws, numerous people killed, and evidence of attempted government “cover-ups” to hide mistakes, solidified anti-government concerns and provided the early leaders of the militia movement with convincing evidence in support of their concerns and rhetoric.

Structural and Ideological Characteristics

The militia movement was influenced by key extremist leaders and borrowed well-known extremist traditions. The most influential traditions were adapted from the Ku Klux Klan, Posse Comitatus, the Order, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Generalizations are difficult, as research indicates that the militia movement is quite diverse, but it is sage to say that there are two types of militia organizations. First, most militia groups are above-ground, paramilitary organizations. The Michigan Militia, for example, has a hierarchical command structure, conducts frequent training exercises, and has public meetings. Such groups criticize the media for demonizing them and claim they are simply community help organizations that focus on community service and preparedness. They discuss how they are preparing to assist the community in times of natural disasters and other crises. Their ideology is moderate—they are less likely to embrace conspiracy theories, are more likely to decry racism and nativism, and claim that they are willing to work within the political system and with extant political leaders to achieve change. Second, a smaller percentage of militia groups operate underground. These groups tend to embrace conspiracy theories and racism and usually intensely distrust government. Many of these groups organize in small underground cells. They have limited contact with other militia organizations and are fearful of being infiltrated by federal law enforcement officers. A very small percentage of these militia groups and their supporters attempt to engage in preemptive strikes against their “enemies” in the government and wider society. Most of these plots have been foiled and the perpetrators arrested by law enforcement before any harm has occurred.

Variations in the ideological commitments of these different types of organization exist, but there are some common themes. Both are interested in celebrating local community rights and protecting the sovereignty of the United States. They are fearful of a growing federal bureaucracy, intrusive government activities, and job-stealing multinational corporations. Some militia members argue that international troops have already invaded American territories as part of a global conspiracy to create a “new world order.” They seek to protect “fundamental” rights of individual liberty, property, and gun ownership and are willing to use whatever force is necessary to protect these interests. Militia groups are critical of the news media, blaming them for demonizing them and destroying the minds of the American public. Other prominent issues that flow from these core ideas include federal land regulations, jury nullification, educational and political reform, immigration, anti-abortion, and anti-homosexuality.

Size of the Movement

Members are recruited in several ways. First, many are recruited informally: Contacts are made at hunting and gun clubs, at job sites, and through social networks. Second, some groups publicize their agenda at public meetings and through newsletters, Web sites, and letters to the editor; they also organize public demonstrations. Many groups attend gun shows and gun events to share ideas and recruit members. Third, high-profile celebrity figures of the movement tour the country or appear on talk and radio shows to discuss the beliefs of the movement, encourage involvement, and guide interested parties toward relevant literature. Fourth, some groups have shortwave radio programs to share the militia message and recruit new members.

Because data are not collected about the militia movement (or any other extremist group) in any systematic way and there are legal limits on what law enforcement is able to collect and retain about such groups when lacking a criminal predicate, there is a very limited understanding of the number of groups and membership in these organizations. The only available information about the size of the movement is provided from watch-group organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League. Both watch-groups acknowledged that a new movement had emerged and grown rapidly in the early 1990s, but mass media and politicians simply ignored the movement. The SPLC, through its Intelligence Project, claimed that the movement appeared in the early 1990s, grew dramatically after the Oklahoma City bombing, and then declined in the late 1990s. The SPLC claimed that militia groups existed in 20 states in 1994, 42 states by late 1995, and all 50 states by 1996. In 2005, the SPLC estimated that there were 152 “patriot groups” in approximately 30 states.


  1. Chermak, Steven M. 2002. Searching for a Demon: The Media Construction of the Militia Movement. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  2. Freilich, Joshua D. 2003. American Militias: State-Level Variations in Militia Activities. New York: LFB.
  3. Freilich, Joshua D., Nelson A. Pichardo Almanzar, and Craig J. Rivera. 1999. “How Social Movement Organizations Explicitly and Implicitly Promote Deviant Behavior: The Case of the Militia Movement.” Justice Quarterly 16:655-83.
  4. Pitcavage, Mark. 2001. “Camouflage and Conspiracy: The Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Y2K.” American Behavioral Scientist 44:957-81.

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