Militias: Initiating Contact

Article excerpt

The growth of the organized militia movement represents one of the most significant social trends of the 1990s. This significance is due less to the actual size of the movement - by all measures, militia membership remains an almost imperceptible percentage of the population - than it is to the potential for death and destruction emanating from the most radical elements of the movement.

Few Americans knew of the militia movement or antigovernment extremists until the morning of April 19, 1995, when a bomb blast destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Although no apparent direct connection exists between members of any militia group and the bombing, those arrested held and expressed views espoused by some militia groups. Following the bombing, television, newspaper, and magazine features presented in-depth - if somewhat alarmist - exposes of the militia movement and the beliefs and values of militia members.

While the intense scrutiny given the militia movement during the past few years has served to educate the public, as well as police officials, about the fundamental beliefs and motivations of militia groups, this scrutiny also has served to raise as many questions as it has answered. What specific factors have fueled the growth of the militia movement? What immediate aims do militia groups wish to achieve? Are militia leaders primarily driven by defensive or aggressive philosophies? What explains the suspicion and distrust many militia members apparently feel toward law enforcement?

Of course, such questions can only be answered with any degree of accuracy by militia members themselves. So, to move beyond a surface understanding of the militia movement, logic dictates that law enforcement agencies go to the source, local militia leaders, to learn more detailed information.

This suggestion is not as impudent as it might first appear. In fact, as part of a broad-based effort to establish positive contacts between law enforcement agencies and local militia groups, simply establishing a dialogue with militia leaders can go a long way to removing some of the mystery that provides fertile ground for the suspicion and distrust that exist in both camps.

This article first summarizes what is known about the militia movement and then suggests a strategy that law enforcement agencies can use to initiate constructive dialogue with militia groups that have not demonstrated a propensity for aggressiveness and violence. The article also includes a threat assessment typology recently developed by the FBI to assist agencies in determining the threat level posed by individual militia groups.


Most militia organization members are white males who range in age from the early 20s to the mid-50s. The majority of militia members appear to be attracted to the movement because of gun control issues, as epitomized by the Brady Law, which established a 5-day waiting period prior to the purchase of a handgun, and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which limited the sale of various assault-style weapons. Many militia members believe that these legislative initiatives represent a government conspiracy to disarm the populace and ultimately abolish the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The federal government's role in confrontations with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, and Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, have further fueled conspiratorial beliefs that the government is becoming more tyrannical and attempting to reverse constitutional guarantees.

Militia members generally maintain strong Christian beliefs and justify their actions by claiming to be ardent defenders of the Constitution. They often compare the American Colonial period (16071783) to their present existence by relating significant Colonial dates and events to lend historical weight to their own beliefs and actions. Many militias claim to represent the ideological legacy of the founding fathers tracing their core beliefs to select writings and speeches that predate the Revolutionary War. …