Self-styled militia groups are in the news again, thanks to the armed protesters who overtook over a wildlife refuge center belonging to the government in Oregon. Prominent members of other civilian militia groups have been journeying there to offer their support. Membership in an armed militia is often fraught with legal difficulties — which is why it's smart to understand what is legal and what isn't before you join one.
Why do militias exist today?
There is a clause in the U.S. Constitution that allows citizens to form a militia, with the idea that private citizens should be called upon in time of national need. There are militia groups that are sanctioned by the government, including state National Guard units. In addition, every able-bodied male from age 17 to age 45 is considered part of an unorganized reserve militia.
Privately formed militia groups, however, exist outside the direct control and recognition of the government. Many of them have formed around anti-government movements and believe that they have the right (or even the duty) of "insurrection" against the government, if necessary, to uphold the law.
What are the dangers of associating with a private militia?
The Supreme Court has rejected the idea that private citizens have a right to act by armed force against the government so long as the government is still allowing free elections and trials by jury. Many militia groups are considered dangerously extremist in their views and there have been several violent conflicts over the years between government forces and private armed militia groups in places like Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
Some states, like Wyoming, specifically forbid the formation of private militias. In that case, joining one would be automatically against the law. However, militias are legal in many states, which means that you can join one in those states without fear of arrest. You want to exercise caution, however, because you can still run afoul of the law by participating in armed exercises or displays in public areas through firearm regulations, riot statutes, and disturbing the peace laws.
What are some signs of trouble?
There are no doubt some private militias that exist solely for the purpose of offering a sense of community to its members and paramilitary training for those who want to be prepared in the event of an emergency.
If you are thinking of joining a militia, however, be on the watch for signs that the group is an extremist one. Extremist militias may:
- espouse rhetoric that warns of government conspiracies to disarm all civilians
- express racial hatred or hatred toward specific minority groups that are perceived as being secretly in charge
- stockpile weaponry in the belief that a future conflict with the national or state government is inevitable
- search for a "victim" of the government to rally around (like those in Oregon)
- support beliefs that private citizens can refuse to pay their taxes or defy court orders that they believe aren't lawful
If you have any questions about the legality of a militia or its actions, consult with an attorney like Thomas A Corletta before you get involved. That will help you avoid any unfortunate legal consequences later.