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A Review of Militias in America

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The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (U.S. Const. amend. II). The right to bear arms is one of the essential components of American democracy. But since the presidency of Bill Clinton, during which the Ruby Ridge Incident and Waco Siege took place, right-wing militia groups have been growing in size and number in response to a vast array of issues, from abortion to government tyranny. Although the right of all Americans to bear arms and assemble are protected by the Constitution, these militias present a serious threat to the domestic security of the United States.

Most militia groups consist of private citizens that use their own weapons and ammunition to practice military training in the case of some kind of disaster, the collapse of government or social order, or to combat the government should it delve into tyranny. Such militias do not include private security companies or any armed forces of the government such as the National Guard, though many members of right-wing militia groups have military experience. Names such as “right-wing militia” and “militia group” are general terms used to describe the wide variety of groups within the United States that share certain ideological and behavioral similarities. Most support nationalism of some kind, strongly favor constitutionalism, tend to be Christian, and almost always have an interest in firearms. The subsets include tax protestors, sovereign citizens, white supremacist, anti-abortion, and Christian extremist. While some militia groups like the Three Percent United Patriots have done service or aid work after Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and flooding in Louisiana and South Carolina, the actions of other groups are far more inflammatory and instigative (Bauer, 2016). In October of 2016, three men in Kansas were arrested for plotting to blow up a housing project that was home to many Somali immigrants. All three were found to be members of a small militia group called the Kansas Security Force, a group that championed the sovereign citizen movement and anti-government beliefs and harbored intense hatred towards immigrants and Muslims (Ellis, 2016). Although the group distanced itself from the men, a leader of the Three Percent Patriots United, a militia group based out of Colorado, claimed, “I worry every day that people who come into the militia will go out and do something” when asked if his members would ever commit an attack on a politician or member of the public (Bauer, 2016).

The militia movement first came to the attention of mainstream America in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were found responsible for detonating a 3.5 ton bomb that killed 168 people and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The two had met in boot camp while serving in the Army and shared certain radical views about the government (Andryszewski, 1997). While living together after leaving the Army, the two men witnessed a fire break out at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where the ATF and FBI had unsuccessfully attempted to execute a search warrant for federal weapons charges. The fire left 76 men, women, and children dead in addition to the 6 Branch Davidians and 4 ATF agents killed in the initial firefight. McVeigh and Nichols were so outraged by the actions of the federal agencies that they planned the OKC bombing in retaliation (Freilich, 2003). They also cited the actions of the ATF, FBI, and US Marshals at the Ruby Ridge Incident, in which 14-year-old Sammy Weaver was shot in the back and killed while fleeing US Marshals while his mother Vicki Weaver was shot by an FBI sniper while holding her 9-month-old child (Major Frederick D. Wong, 2011). The bombing in Oklahoma City brought to light the anti-government, sovereign citizen, and militia movements which had largely been confined to internet messageboards and gun shows. It also demonstrated the huge danger these people represented to the federal government and even everyday citizens.

Militias increased the most during Barack Obama’s first term as president. His perceived anti-gun agenda, use of federal authority, and lax attitude towards illegal immigration caused many republicans and conservatives to join or form militias. Many groups have sprung up in states bordering Mexico, and now patrol areas of the border on their own time and dollar to combat drug dealers, human traffickers, and illegal immigrants (Bauer, 2016). Such groups celebrated the election of President Donald Trump, who attracted them with his support of the 2nd Amendment and tough stance on illegal immigration.

There are multiple reasons why private militias are a pressing threat to national security. First, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security declared right-wing militias to be the most pressing threat to the domestic security of the United States in the Law Enforcement Assessment of the Violent Extremism Threat (Kurzman & Shanzer, 2015). The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the number of extremist groups in the United States, said in 2016 there were 276 right-wing groups came to their attention, a 37% increase from the 202 such groups known in 2014 (2014). Right-wing groups have killed about half as many people in the United States as have Islamic terrorists according to New America, an thinktank which compiles statistics on terrorist activity in the United States (Bergen, Ford, Sims & Sterman, 2016). A six-month investigation by TIME magazine in 2010 revealed that more militia groups are preparing for a real war and that the FBI and state investigators are looking into the activities of such groups with more scrutiny (Gellman, 2010). But besides the growing number of militia groups, the cultural and operating aspects of militia groups also contribute to the danger of these groups. Many militia groups can trace their roots to the KKK and other extremist groups, some of which have only ever been responsible for empty threats, while others have directly attacked U.S. citizens or the federal government. These domestic extremists share many characteristics with foreign terrorist groups. The indoctrination of children to radical ideologies, the procuration of weapons, the intrinsic link between beliefs and violence, and the use of propaganda to further their cause are all activities conducted by foreign and domestic militant groups alike (Wong, 2011). They present another threat in their ability to carry out attacks within the United States much more easily than the Islamic groups most consider to be the biggest threat to national security. Foreign organizations must infiltrate the United States, evading intelligence services and immigration vetting designed to weed out enemies of the United States. Even then, many people of Middle Eastern descent are subjected to profiling, and they must be trained in firearms and explosives to do any real damage. Domestic groups do not face these issues: their members are predominantly white, all live within the United States, most have legal access to firearms, and many have prior military experience (Kurzman & Shanzer, 2015). Furthermore the perpetuation of militia activities is facilitated by the inaction of prosecutors and law enforcement (Bauer, 2016). Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that no one had ever been prosecuted with anti-militia laws, only for criminal acts related to their militia activity (Rathod, 2016). According to the Anti-Defamation League, 41 states have laws prohibiting either the formation of armed private militias or the execution of military training activities, however the laws are obviously not enforced (2016). Additionally, the activities of such groups normally do not break any federal or state laws other than anti-militia laws, making them low-level targets to law enforcement (Rathod, 2016). Even Dale L. Watson, former Executive Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism & Counterintelligence Division of the FBI testified before Congress that most of the activities conducted by right-wing extremist groups are protected by the right to free speech and assembly (2002). Part of that issue is that federal prosecutors often come down on militia members with federal charges before state prosecutors can prove a militia conspiracy case (Rathod 2016).

There are scores of recent incidents that demonstrate the presence of these militiamen who vehemently oppose the federal government. The first was the attempt by the federal Bureau of Land Management to seize the cattle of Clyde Bundy as collateral for the millions of dollars he owed in land-grazing feeds. The federal agents were met by a mob, which included snipers who took position on a bridge and other armed men who aimed their guns at agents and forced them to retreat. The next incident also involved the Bundy family, this time taking over the Forest Ranger’s’ Office at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to protest the resentencing of two ranchers who had been convicted of arson, and this time blood was spilled. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed by FBI agents when he reached for his gun after crashing his vehicle in an attempt to evade a roadblock. Besides the Bundy incidents, extremist right-wing plots have been thwarted across the country, including one by KKK member who planned to kill Muslims using a “death ray” (Phillips, 2016).

Just like domestic crime and foreign terrorist attacks, there is no way to completely eliminate the threat posed by right-wing militias. The only possibility is to use intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent as much violence as possible. The role of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and other nongovernmental organizations and watchdogs in monitoring the threat posed by these extremist militia groups is vital to national security. The sentiments and ideologies that drive extremist individuals and groups to commit attacks is deep seeded and is not something that can be eliminated quickly. Many groups are driven by the same racial hatred that existed in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement, the same hatred that existed in 1800’s when slavery was still legal. The hateful ideology that fuels some members of these militias will take centuries to eradicate, but the hate of some towards the government will be more difficult to deal with. What can be done in the short term is requiring more thorough background checks and passing laws that make it illegal for anyone affiliated with a recognized list of right-wing extremist groups to own a firearm. Additionally, federal and state prosecutors and law enforcement agencies need to develop a system of cooperation to ensure that the charges brought against anyone for violent activity related to extremist militias are as serious and prosecutable as possible. In their current system, law enforcement entities make their jobs harder while jeopardizing the lives of American citizens. The inefficiency of the government is the basis for the militia movement, and fixing that inefficiency just may be the solution.

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