TOPICS > Politics

Militia Groups – Drawing the Line

April 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROD MINOTT: With the Federal Building as a symbolic backdrop, a group of about a dozen people in Helena, Montana, last Friday marked the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing by rallying against armed extremists.

DON JUDGE, Montana Anti-Extremist Coalition: We abhor the vilification of government workers as a threat to people and an assault on our democracy, and we urge all Montanans to stand up and be counted against the acts of political hatred and division.

ROD MINOTT: Organizers of this gathering used the anniversary to kick off a petition drive: Their goal, placing on the ballot an initiative to combat far right extremists. The measure targets the Montana Freemen, a group of anti-government militants who reject state and federal law. About 18 of them remain holed up on a farm in Eastern Montana, where the stand-off against federal agents has now lasted one month. Authorities believe the Freemen are heavily armed. While Montana already has a law that bans paramilitary training, the proposed ballot measure would outlaw the filing of bogus property liens, a tactic used frequently by the Freemen. The initiative would also allow anyone harassed or threatened by extremists to sue for monetary damages. Evan Barrett heads the ballot drive.

EVAN BARRETT, Montana Anti-Extremist Coalition: Silence is consent, and if we stand by silent in the face of this kind of extremism, those who perpetrate that kind of violence and activity will believe that we’re on their side, and most mainstream America and mainstream Montana is not on the side of those who would perpetrate violence.

ROD MINOTT: Even though anti-government activity in Montana hasn’t become violent like Waco, where more than 70 people died, or Ruby Ridge, where two people were killed by federal agents, it has still focused attention on a sub-culture of armed paramilitary groups. That attention had been at its most intense one year ago following the Oklahoma City bombing.

MORRIS DEES, Southern Poverty Law Center: (April 19, 1995) You can’t have a private army poised with AK-47’s to assault the FBI or the ATF.

ROD MINOTT: Last year, after Oklahoma City, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center said on the NewsHour it was time to take a hard look at paramilitary groups.

MORRIS DEES: We ought to look closely at outlawing militia groups that, in fact, are more than just study groups that are groups that are training in military procedures with rank, with status, with guns, with the kinds of things that really make up an army.

ROD MINOTT: Dees now says there may be as many as 441 armed militia groups in all 50 states. That’s about double what he had estimated a year ago. In a new report, the Southern Poverty Law Center warns the threat of domestic terrorism posed by paramilitary extremists has increased sharply over the past year. In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Dees wrote, “Unless action is taken, it is only a matter of time before the country endures another nightmare like the Oklahoma City tragedy.” And even though Congress passed federal anti-terrorist legislation last week, many human rights activists still feel there’s a need for other statewide measures. According to experts, the growth of militias continues despite laws in 41 states that either ban or regulate paramilitary groups. Opponents of militias say it’s time to enforce those laws already on the books more diligently. But defining paramilitary activity and what laws militias might be violating is not clear. For example, Washington is one of twenty-four states with laws that forbid forming unauthorized military companies. The statute was passed in the late 1800’s, according to Greg Canova, head of the criminal division for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

GREG CANOVA, Deputy Attorney General, Washington: This was designed to prevent, in essence, private landowners who were rather often in the West hiring their own groups of armed men to protect their range territory to keep the homesteaders off their property or what they felt was their property that they were using for grazing herds.

ROD MINOTT: The statute has never been tested, and Canova suggests it may not be specific enough to be enforceable.

SPOKESMAN: It’s got a little white indicator line on it.

ROD MINOTT: He cites, for example, a militia based in Port Orchard, Washington called the Sons of Liberty and says it’s very difficult to identify whether the group constitutes a military company in the context of the law.

SPOKESMAN: The compass needle is always going to point North.

ROD MINOTT: Sons of Liberty was founded two years ago as an answer to bills passed by Congress regulating sales of handguns and assault rifles. Members insist they’re an educational group that train in survival techniques such as compass and map reading and first aid. Mark Carter is firearms instructor for Sons of Liberty. He and others affiliated with the group use local rifle ranges to conduct field exercises, often competing in sanctioned gun matches. Carter says calls for curbing militias are really about taking away the right to bear arms, which would prevent him from conducting what he describes as self-defense training.

MARK CARTER, Sons of Liberty: What is wrong with preparing for war? As they have said, if you want to live at peace, you need to prepare for war, and it’s simply a matter of showing those that you’re very serious about maintaining your freedom.

ROD MINOTT: Canova and other authorities add they don’t believe militia groups, including the Sons of Liberty, pose a serious threat right now in Washington State and caution against a crackdown.

GREG CANOVA: If that’s the path you take, you may simply increase the paranoia of honest, upstanding, law-abiding citizens who are out there who may see this as a further threat and may be right that it might be a threat to their otherwise protected constitutional rights.

ROD MINOTT: In Boise, Idaho, state lawmakers have also been grappling with the issue of how much to crack down on paramilitary groups. The rise of a violent and militant neo-Nazi gang known as the Order led the state in 1987 to pass one of the nation’s toughest anti-paramilitary laws. It bars people from assembling to train in firearms and explosives for the intent of committing violence. A violation can bring up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $50,000. Similar anti-paramilitary training laws now exist in 23 other states. Idaho’s Attorney General says no one in that state has ever been prosecuted under its anti-paramilitary law. Alan Lance says he doesn’t see any evidence the state’s largest militia, the U.S. Militia Association, has violated the paramilitary law. He says right now, there’s no need for taking action.

ALAN LANCE, Attorney General, Idaho: A crackdown doing what? Violating an individual’s right of free speech? No, we’re not in that business of violating constitutional rights. Violating them because they have rhetoric that’s somewhat outlandish and outrageous, no, I don’t think so.

ROD MINOTT: But others worry about what the militia is really up to. Its director, Samuel Sherwood, was quoted in a newspaper article saying a civil war may be on the horizon. “Go up and look Idaho legislators in the face,” he allegedly said, “because some day you may be forced to blow it off.” Sherwood says he was misquoted, and in an interview on Idaho Public Television, he insisted his group is not violent.

SAM SHERWOOD, U.S. Militia Association: We’re not armed. The individuals may or may not be armed. That’s part of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, but the Association is not armed, and we do not do drills, we don’t go up into the hills in camouflage uniforms.

ROD MINOTT: But while he claims the militia is not armed, Sherwood and his followers have lobbied Idaho lawmakers to recognize their group as the state’s official militia. In this booklet, Sherwood says legal recognition would give the Idaho militia access to weapons the U.S. Army uses, including tanks and artillery. Sherwood says the weapons are needed so the militia can serve as back-up for law enforcement. Idaho’s governor vows that’ll never happen.

GOV. PHIL BATT, Idaho: I can foresee no circumstances in which we’d use it to enforce laws within the state of Idaho. We have our own police. We have our National Guard. We have our county sheriffs, and all the other law enforcement people, and those are the people I turn to, not any militia.

ROD MINOTT: Given the experiences in states like Washington and Idaho, the Anti-Defamation League of the B’Nai B’rith tried to craft anti-militia laws that may be easier to enforce. Their proposal, which the ADL believes can pass constitutional muster, would ban paramilitary training which targets groups or individuals. Marvin Stern is with the ADL’s Seattle office.

MARVIN STERN, Anti-Defamation League: It’s simply a question of having the ability to shoot a gun but also indicating who the targets of those–of that shooting might, in fact, be. The burden of proof is going to be on the prosecution to make the case that the, the assembling and the teaching, and the training was for the specific intended purpose to carry out an act of civil disobedience or civil disorder or violence.

ROD MINOTT: Militias charge the proposal would deny them the right to assemble, but the ADL says that right would be protected. Sons of Liberty Leader Mark Carter says he’s not spoiling for an armed confrontation, but he adds, if it ever comes to shutting his group down, he’s willing to take up arms.

MARK CARTER: What our founding fathers did was overthrow the rightfully installed government of the day, uh, because it had become a tyranny over the people. We see a lot of resemblances now between now and then.

ROD MINOTT: For now, this marksman pledges he’ll keep his fight at the ballot box, and in the state capital, where Washington’s legislature recently rejected the ADL’s bill to ban paramilitary training. Four other states are now considering similar legislation.