American militia movement

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"Three Percenters" patrol Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Virginia during the 2017 Unite the Right rally.

"American militia movement" is a term used by law enforcement and security analysts to refer to a number of private organizations that include paramilitary or similar elements. These groups may refer to themselves as militia, unorganized militia,[1] and constitutional militia.[2] While groups such as the Posse Comitatus existed as early as the 1980s,[3] the movement gained momentum after standoffs with government agents in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, such groups were active in all 50 US states, with membership estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000.[4]

The movement is most closely associated with the American right-wing and since the early 2000s it has shown considerable hostility against immigrants and Muslims.[5]

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), while it is true that some militias have black leaders, this does not completely absolve the militia movement of racism, prejudice, or bigotry. However, the militia movement is distinct from white supremacist movements like neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan groups, and the alt-right.[6]


The catalysts of the American militia movement started with the FBI's 1992 shootout with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, and the 1993 Waco siege which David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were involved in at Mt. Carmel in Waco, Texas.[7][8][9] Critic Mark Pitcavage described the predecessors of the modern militia movement:[3]

The militia movement is a right-wing movement that arose following controversial standoffs in the 1990s. It inherited paramilitary traditions of earlier groups, especially the conspiratorial, anti-government Posse Comitatus. The militia movement claims that militia groups are sanctioned by law but uncontrolled by government; in fact, they are designed to oppose a tyrannical government. The movement's ideology has led some adherents to commit criminal acts, including stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives and plotting to destroy buildings or assassinate public officials, as well as lesser confrontations.

The Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the Waco fire, drew nationwide attention to the militia movement because Timothy McVeigh was associated with the Michigan Militia, he possibly attended meetings before the attack.[10] This increased public scrutiny and law enforcement pressure, and brought in more recruits due to the heightened awareness of the movement.[11]

In March 1996, agents of the FBI and other law enforcement organizations surrounded the 960-acre (390 ha) eastern Montana "Justus Township" compound of the Montana Freemen. The Freemen were a Sovereign Citizen group that included elements of the Christian Identity ideology, espoused common law legal theories, and rejected the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve.[4] Montana legislator Carl Ohs mediated through the standoff. Both Randy Weaver (one of the besieged at Ruby Ridge) and Bo Gritz (a civilian negotiator at Ruby Ridge) had attempted to talk to the group but had given up in frustration, as did Colorado Senator Charlie Duke when he had attempted negotiations.[12] A break finally came when far right leaders abandoned the group to their fate.[13] The group surrendered peacefully after an 81-day standoff and 14 of the Freemen faced criminal charges relating to circulating millions of dollars in bogus checks and threatening the life of a federal judge.[12] The peaceful resolution of this and other standoffs after Ruby Ridge and Waco have been credited by some to the creation of the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) in the U.S. Department of Justice in 1994.[14]

A 1999 US Department of Justice analysis of the potential militia threat at the millennium conceded that the vast majority of militias were reactive (not proactive) and posed no threat.[15] By 2001, the militia movement seemed to be in decline, having peaked in 1996 with 858 groups.[16] With the post-2007 global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency in 2008, militia activity experienced a resurgence.[17][18][19] Militia groups have recently been involved in several high-profile standoffs, including the Bundy Standoff in 2014 and the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

Many militia groups, particularly those on the far-right, strongly supported the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump, with their focus on anti-government sentiment being replaced with opposing perceived enemies of Trump who were often alleged to be deeply imbedded within the bureaucracy or "deep state". During Trump's presidency, support amongst certain militia groups and members waned in some instances but solidified and expanded in others. Starting in 2020, militia groups were heavily involved in rallies against COVID-19 related restrictions, gun control measures, and Black Lives Matter protests.[20] After Trump's loss in the 2020 presidential election, militia groups who had supported Trump mobilized to protest the results, including large scale participation in the "Stop The Steal" movement, promoting false claims that the election result was fraudulent.[21][22]

In the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, members with ties to various militia groups participated in the attack.[22][21] In recent years, there have been increasing incidents in which Republicans candidates for public office pandering to militia groups in exchange for their support.[23][24][25]

Legal legitimacy[edit]

Most militia organizations envisage themselves as legally legitimate organizations, despite the fact that all 50 states prohibit private paramilitary activity.[26][27][28] Others subscribe to the "insurrection theory" which describes the right of the body politic to rebel against the established government in the face of tyranny. (In the 1951 case Dennis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the insurrection theory, stating that as long as the government provides for free elections and trials by jury, "political self-defense" cannot be undertaken.)[29]

Opposition to the government[edit]

Beliefs within the militia movement encompass a combination of ideologies and positions commonly associated with various groups, including the sovereign citizens movement, the 1960s tax protest movement, the John Birch Society, the Tea Party movement, and since 2016, Trumpism. These beliefs often revolve around anti-government sentiments, opposition to perceived encroachments on individual rights, and skepticism towards established institutions. The militia movement has gained attention for its advocacy of armed resistance and its involvement in controversial incidents, such as standoffs with law enforcement. It is important to note that not all individuals who identify with the militia movement share the same beliefs or engage in illegal activities.[6]

While militia organizations vary in their ideologies and objectives, with many high-profile organizations espousing anti-tax, anti-immigration, survivalist, sovereign citizen, libertarian, land rights views, they generally share a common belief in the imminent or actual rise of a tyrannical global socialist government in the United States which, they believe, must be confronted through armed force.[6][30][31] This tyrannical government is linked to the New World Order conspiracy theory and is named by the militiamen as the eponymous conspiracy theory.[32]

Active groups part of the militia movement[edit]

The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 334 militia groups at a peak in 2011. It identified 276 in 2015, up from 202 in 2014 and in 2022 nearly 200 groups still exist, down from 2015.[33]

United States militia movement groups[34]
Group name Area Beliefs Ref.
3 Percenters Nationwide Right-libertarianism[35] (majority)

Patriot movement
Second Amendment Constitutionalism[citation needed]

Hutaree[original research?] Michigan, southern Christian nationalism
Christian Patriot movement
Idaho Light Foot Militia Idaho, statewide Patriot movement [39]
Michigan Militia Michigan, Redford Patriot movement [40]
Militia of Montana Montana, Noxon American constitutionalism[citation needed]
American nationalism
Accelerationism[citation needed]
Missouri Citizens Militia Missouri, statewide [42]
Missouri Militia Missouri, Kansas City [43]
New York Light Foot Militia New York, statewide Patriot movement [44]
Oath Keepers Nationwide Patriot movement
Ohio Defense Force Ohio, statewide [46]
Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia Pennsylvania [47]
Texas Light Foot Militia Texas, statewide [48]


The constitutionalist wing of the American militia movement became active in the mid 1990s in a response of outrage about the violent confrontation at Ruby Ridge, the Waco Siege and gun control legislation.[49][50] The movement is composed largely of veterans, libertarians, and Second Amendment advocates who share a common belief in individual liberties and civil responsibilities, according to their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, as well as disdain for what are perceived to be abusive, usurpative, or tyrannical federal government decisions and actions, and a set of ideals associated with the values of the militia they see embodied in the Constitution.[51][52] From the inception of the modern movement there has been controversy over whether the movement was an important part of a complete response to many important threats, or a threat in itself.[53]

Scholars Stanley C. Weeber and Daniel G. Rodeheaver offer a description of the constitutionalist militia movement that identifies four types:[54]

  1. The Open Constitutionalist, with the Cascade Brigade as an example
  2. Constitutionalist/Command Structure, with the Alabama Constitutional Militia and the Michigan Militia as examples
  3. Constitutionalist/Cell Structure, with the Militia of Montana and the Texas Constitutional Militia as examples
  4. Underground/ No Public Contact, with the Sons of Liberty (Alabama) as example

Other writers view constitutionalism as the movement, having a militia wing, rather than a militia movement with a constitutionalist wing.[53]

Throughout American history, there have been other constitutionalist revivals in opposition to various government actions.[53] Some writers[55] have asserted that the modern revival of the constitutional militia movement began as early as 1958 but that, in this early phase, it was associated ideologically with the white supremacist Christian Identity movement mixed with constitutionalist elements. A fear of Communism was prevalent in the United States during the Twentieth Century, against which was set the modern revival of the constitutional militia movement. These militia revivals believed in the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, and that certain groups are conspiring to destroy America. Unlike the Christian Identity groups, the Constitutionalist militias generally resist casting blame on ethnic, racial or religious groups, but rather blame influential individuals or groups of individuals (e.g., the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission) who promote globalization, collectively known as the New World Order.[56] The Posse Comitatus is an exception to this principle, however, as it adheres to the antisemitic theory of the Zionist Occupation Government.[57]

Conceptually, a citizen's militia has been defined as a constitutionalist private army meeting regularly to practice combat skills and discuss weapons. The militia is defined as social groups practice "skills within a distinct territory, are not always anti-government, and have some opinions regarding use of terrorism to further militia goals." It may have an offensive, paramilitary, and/or defensive orientation depending on circumstances.[58]

Operational features listed in the book Militias in the New Millennium include the following:[59]

  1. Training in combat scenarios and weaponry skills in mock actions and maneuvers
  2. Has an identifiable territory in which members reside
  3. Bases organization philosophies on anti-government rhetoric
  4. Development of contingency plans in case of governmental provocation
  5. Considers bombing, kidnappings, separatism, "paper terrorism", or other extreme measures to protect the organic Constitution
  6. Considers the viability of criminal activity to acquire weapons and explosives

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mulloy, Darren (2004) American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement, Routledge.
  2. ^ Williams, David C. (2003) The mythic meanings of the Second Amendment: taming political violence in a constitutional republic. Yale University Press. p. 363. ISBN 0-300-09562-7
  3. ^ a b Pitcavage, Mark; Institute for Intergovernmental Research: Camouflage and Conspiracy. The Militia Movement From Ruby Ridge to Y2K. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 44, No. 6, Pages 957–981, SAGE Publications, 2001.
  4. ^ a b Berlet, Chip & Lyons, Matthew (2000). Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort Archived 2016-04-16 at the Wayback Machine, Guilford. ISBN 1-57230-562-2
  5. ^ "Three Percenters | ADL". Retrieved 2023-10-09. Though the militia movement is not a white supremacist movement, since the early 2000s it has displayed considerable hostility (and occasional violence) towards these two communities.
  6. ^ a b c "The Militia Movement (2020) | ADL". Retrieved 2023-10-09. The militia movement has also always had a small number of people of color as members, and occasionally as leaders. [...] These facts do not absolve the militia movement of racism or prejudice—especially anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigotry—but it does mean that the militia movement is quite distinct from white supremacist movements such as neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan groups, or the alt right.
  7. ^ Rise Of Citizen Militias: Angry White Guys With Guns Daniel Junas CovertAction Quarterly April 24, 1995
  8. ^ Morris Dees, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat. Harper Perennial (April 23, 1997) ISBN 0-06-092789-5
  9. ^ Robert H. Churchill, "Arming for the Last Battle: Secular and Religious Millennial Impulses within the Militia Movement", 1999 Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University, Boston, MA, November 9, 1999. Online copy Archived 2008-04-14 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "Michigan Militia still active 20 years after Oklahoma City bombing". mlive. 2015-04-20. Retrieved 2020-09-07.
  11. ^ Militia Nation Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons Progressive Magazine
  12. ^ a b Freemen surrender peacefully to FBI Cable News Network June 14, 1996
  13. ^ Freemen Were Alone New York Times June 15, 1996
  14. ^ Christopher Whitcomb, Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. ISBN 0-552-14788-5. (Covers Ruby Ridge, Waco Siege and creation of CIRG.)
  15. ^ United States Department of Justice, "Operation Megiddo", November 2, 1999, page 22; cited in Robert H. Churchill, "Arming for the Last Battle: Secular and Religious Millennial Impulses within the Militia Movement", 1999 Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University, Boston, MA, November 9, 1999.
  16. ^ "Militias 'in retreat'". BBC News. May 11, 2001.
  17. ^ Carter, Gregg Lee, ed. (2012). "Militias". Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, Volume 1. pp. 575–6.
  18. ^ Stephanie Schendel (2012-03-07). "Election, economy spark explosive growth of militias". NBC News.
  19. ^ Nicholas Kimbrell (13 February 2010). "America's militiamen resurgent since Obama election". The National.
  20. ^ "The Militia Movement (2020)". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  21. ^ a b "Capitol riots: Are US militia groups becoming more active?". BBC News. 2021-01-21. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  22. ^ a b Doxsee, Catrina (12 August 2021). "Examining Extremism: The Militia Movement". Center for Strategic and International Studies. Archived from the original on 2021-08-12. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  23. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D.; McIntire, Mike (2021-02-09). "'Its Own Domestic Army': How the G.O.P. Allied Itself With Militants". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  24. ^ Arnsdorf, Isaac (20 October 2021). "Oath Keepers in the State House: How a Militia Movement Took Root in the Republican Mainstream". ProPublica. Archived from the original on 2021-10-22. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  25. ^ Felbab-Brown, Vanda (2021-01-21). "How to counter right-wing armed groups in the United States". Brookings. Archived from the original on 2021-01-22. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  26. ^ "Are Citizen Militias Legal?". Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  27. ^ Phillips, Kristine. "All states prohibit 'militia extremists' and paramilitary activities. So why aren't they stopped?". USA TODAY.
  28. ^ Levy, Rachael (October 10, 2020). "What Are Militias and Are They Legal?". Wall Street Journal – via
  29. ^ Hardaway, Robert (2002). "The Inconvenient Militia Clause of the Second Amendment: Why the Supreme Court Declines to Resolve the Debate over the Right to Bear Arms". St. John's Journal of Legal Commentary (16).
  30. ^ Hannaford, Alex (19 August 2010). "The truth behind America's 'civilian militias'". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  31. ^ "Militia History and Law FAQ". Anti-Defamation League. Archived from the original on 9 January 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  32. ^ The Hate Map Of America - Interview with Mark Potok, investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center
  33. ^ "Antigovernment militia groups grew by more than one-third in last year". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2016-02-28.
  34. ^ "Active 'Patriot' Groups in the United States in 2009 | Southern Poverty Law Center". Retrieved 2010-04-01.
  35. ^ Nance, Malcolm (2022). They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency. St. Martin's Publishing Group. pp. 319–320. ISBN 978-1250279002.
  36. ^ "Three Percenters | ADL". Retrieved 2023-10-24. Three Percenters are part of the militia movement
  37. ^ Sunshine, Spencer (January 5, 2016). "Profiles on the Right: Three Percenters". Political Research Associates. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  38. ^ "US 'Christian militants' charged after FBI raids" BBC, 30 March 2010. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  39. ^ McKnight, Matt Mills (2 August 2012). "'Teeth of the Constitution:' Light Foot Militia rises in Idaho's backcountry". NBC News. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  40. ^ Johnson, Kirk (31 March 2010). "Militia Draws Distinctions Between Groups". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  41. ^ Kelly, Michael (June 19, 1995). "THE ROAD TO PARANOIA". The New Yorker. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  42. ^ Londberg, Max (7 August 2015). "Guns, rights and the Missouri Citizen Militia". Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  43. ^ Samaha, Albert (22 June 2011). "Watch Out: Here Comes the Missouri Militia". The Riverfront Times. Archived from the original on 20 September 2015. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  44. ^ Walters, Joanna (15 August 2017). "Militia leaders who descended on Charlottesville condemn 'rightwing lunatics'". Retrieved 23 September 2017.
  45. ^ "Oath Keepers militia will attend Portland 'free speech' rally, says leader". The Guardian. June 4, 2017.
  46. ^ Gellman, Barton (30 September 2010). "The Secret World of Extreme Militias". Time. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  47. ^ "Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia". Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia.
  48. ^ Brannson, Doug (22 July 2015). "Texas Town Has Citizen Militia Standing Guard at Recruiters Office". KQBR. Townsquare Media, Inc. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  49. ^ "Who are the constitutional militia movement?". Constitution Society. Retrieved 2020-04-26.
  50. ^ Beaumont, Roger; "American as Cherry Pie? Unofficial Militias in American History", Journal of Conflict Studies Vol. XIX No. 2, Fall 1999: University of New Brunswick
  51. ^ Jonathan Karl, The Right to Bear Arms: The Rise of America's New Militias (New York: Harper, 1995)
  52. ^ Churchill, Robert H., Boston University, 1999 Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies. Arming for the Last Battle: Secular and Religious Millennial Impulses within the Militia Movement.
  53. ^ a b c Robert H Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement, University of Michigan Press (March 3, 2009) ISBN 0-472-11682-7.
  54. ^ Weeber, Stanley C., and Daniel Gilbert Rodeheaver. Militias in the New Millennium A Test of Smelser's Theory of Collective Behavior Page 61.
  55. ^ Weeber, Stan C. + Rodeheaver, Daniel G. Sociological Quarterly. Spring 2003. "Militias at the Millennium: A test of Smelser's theory of collective behavior." Pages 182–84
  56. ^ Weeber, S. C., & Rodeheaver, D. G. (2004). Militias in the New Millennium: A Test of Smelser's Theory of Collective Behavior, pages 11–12. Lanham, Md, University Press of America.
  57. ^ Perry, Barbara (15 March 2001). In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routledge. p. 138. ISBN 978-1-135-95783-4.
  58. ^ Daniel G. Rodeheaver; Stan Weeber; Weeber, Stanley C. (2004). Militias in the New Millennium: A Test of Smelser's Theory of Collective Behavior. Washington, D.C: University Press of America. pp. 4–6. ISBN 0-7618-2789-7. (M)ilitias are social groups that practice skills within a distinct territory, are anti-government in outlook, and have definite opinions regarding use of terrorism to further militia goals.
  59. ^ Weeber, Stan C. + Rodeheaver, Daniel G.. "Militias in the New Millennium: A test of Smelser's theory of collective behavior," Page 188

Further reading[edit]