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Militias in America: Patriots or Extremists?

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Posted on November 17 2009 3:00 am
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CNN recently aired a segment on the upsurge of so-called militias across the United States, focusing specifically on the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, as they “practice target acquisition” with high-powered semi-automatic rifles, run drills and practice first aid.

This Michigan militia is one of hundreds of such groups across the country, and that number is growing. Some of the groups are unquestionably extremist, racist groups that promote hate and other radical ideologies that keep them out of mainstream America, fermenting on the edge of a more tolerant society. Despite common perceptions of militias in our country, an even larger number of these militias are made up seemingly ordinary Americans.

The SWVM posts a rather innocuous “mission statement” in the form of a plain-language disclaimer on its website:

“The SMVM is devoted to individual rights and the ideals that lie at the foundation of our society. We have no affiliation with, nor do we promote or encourage, any subversive or quasi-subversive entities or acts against the United States of America or against the American People, inside or outside of U.S. borders. Any and all instruction and training conducted by The SMVM is done in accordance with Federal, State and Local Laws and regulations. The SMVM does not and will not train any foreign or domestic entity(ies) that could pose a threat to — or has denounced — the United States of America.”

The United States employed militias in the war for independence from Great Britain, then again in the Civil War. The fundamental ideologies and sentiments of militias such as the SMVM are not so different from those of militiamen who fought to free a nation from the tyranny of a distant empire, then to free an entire race in America from the tyranny of another. Little else remains the same.

Right to Bear Arms vs. Right to Form a “Well-Regulated” Militia

In November 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a letter to all federal prosecutors stating the Justice Department’s new official position that the Second Amendment protected the individual ownership of firearms. His decision was based largely on judicial precedent. So, for the sake of this discussion, we will consider settled the question of the individual’s right to bear arms.

The question of citizen-run militias, however, requires a look not only at the words of the Second Amendment, but also a close examination of the world in which they now function, as opposed the world in which militias found their root in American society.

A report from Rutgers University Law School (Defending Themselves: The Original Understanding of the Right to Bear Arms) states:

“The right to bear arms was not exercised solely by the state or by individuals, but rather by citizens to ensure public safety. Indeed, the individual right to bear arms was essential if men were to perform their duty of militia service.”

Indeed, in the era our Constitution was drafted, and for almost a century after, militias were essential in the defense of our nation. The United States did not, at that time, have a significant standing army or a national law enforcement body. Nor did communities have regular police forces.

Today, the United States has a strong military force, federal law enforcement agencies, and a robust judicial system. States have the National Guard and other state law enforcement agencies. Localities have police forces.

Militias are not held to any system of laws that determines their jurisdiction or modus operandi. They are not, in the modern sense of the word, regulated – certainly not the “well-regulated” militias of which the Second Amendment speaks.

So the remaining questions are –

  • “Do militias still serve a necessary role in America?”
  • “If militias do still serve a legitimate role in America, should we take a literal, modern approach to the verbiage of the Second Amendment – in particular, the words well-regulated – and put in place a regulatory framework to guide and monitor their operations?”

These questions are not to be answered by our courts, which have thus far decided in accordance with precedent and the Constitution, but by Congress, which has the power to change the law.

Unfortunately, CNN’s 30,000-feet coverage of the issue did nothing to add to our understanding of the issue, and posed questions of little import to the larger debate.

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