Creating a "Well Regulated Militia": Policy Responses to Paramilitary Groups in the American States

Article excerpt

In a democratic political system responsive to citizen demands governments must often balance conflicting interests. The rise of armed rightwing paramilitary groups, and especially the recent growth of citizen militias, have created such a situation in the American states. In particular, governments must respond to the threat of armed anti-government groups, while simultaneously attempting to address the "mainstream" conservative issues these groups often raise. This study examines how governments balance these demands by developing a general theory of policy formation and adoption. We expect that adoption of anti-paramilitary laws is more likely when paramilitary groups pose a greater potential threat to the state and when elected Republicans are less conservative. Our model also controls for the activities of interest groups and the possibility that policy change is incremental. Using a data set of the fifty American states, we find that governments do balance opposing interests. While anti-paramilitary laws arise out of a perception of the threat posed by armed far-right groups, conservative Republicans, faced with a constituency that supports some issues raised by paramilitary groups, appear to try to limit the scope of anti-paramilitary laws.

Interest in citizens' militias has grown considerably since the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City Groups such as the AntiDefamation League, however, have tracked the rise of citizen militias for some time and consider militia groups to be the lead organizations of the broader "Patriot movement" (Dees and Corcoran 1996; Stern 1995,1996). While paramilitary groups and domestic terrorist acts in the United States are nothing new (see Smith 1994; Stern 1996; Toy 1989), the large number of citizens' militias and their focus on paramilitary training for possible confrontations with the U.S. government is a recent phenomenon. Whether or not citizen militias are or have been involved in domestic terrorism and other illegal activity appears to be the main focus of journalistic attention on the militias. A more interesting question though is how, if it all, state and local governments have responded to the perceived threat of armed anti-government groups such as citizens' militias.1

In a political system designed to be responsive to the demands of citizens and organized interest groups, the perceived threat of anti-government paramilitary forces should evoke government action in the form of enforcing existing laws and passing new legislation to assuage public concerns for security Citizen militias, however, often present critical assessments of the federal governent, taxes, and programs that largely benefit ethnic minorities which are consistent with mainstream American conservatism. Thus, policymakers are faced with the paradox of restraining the rise of anti-government paramilitary groups while simultaneously addressing the concerns that may fuel the rise of these groups in the first place. How then do state governments balance these opposing demands?

Our research examines this question by constructing a theoretical framework to explain state variation in the adoption of what have come to be known as "anti-paramilitary laws." We discuss the rise of citizen militias, explain our theoretical framework on policy formation and adoption, test hypotheses derived from our theory on a fifty-state data set, and present the findings of our research along with a discussion of the implications of this study

CITIZEN MILITIAS: THE REBIRTH OF RIGHT-WING PARAMILITARY GROUPS

The citizen militia groups of the 1990s have built on the membership, ideology, and leadership structures of earlier paramilitary organizations (Stem 1996: 42-57). On many issues, however, their rhetoric is less extreme than that of their predecessors, allowing militias to recruit the more politically moderate members of society Most militia groups are distinct organizations with no overarching organization or structure tying them together. …