Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Why the Law Turns a Blind Eye to Militias
Read Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer's undercover look at the right-wing militia movement.
When Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer signed up to train with a militia group in California last spring, he came equipped with woodland camo, combat boots, and a semi-automatic rifle. On a mountainside outside the San Francisco Bay Area, he joined other similarly armed recruits. Over the course of several trainings, they learned about marksmanship, land navigation, patrolling, rappelling, radio communication, and code language. They also learned how to hold defensive positions and set up bases.
The group Bauer joined was the California State Militia (CSM), which describes itself as a collection of "concerned citizen soldiers" seeking to defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic. CSM doesn't conceal its activities; it shares photos of its trainings on Facebook. In March, CSM's Bravo Company posted snapshots of camo-clad militia members gathered in the woods, setting up camp and aiming their rifles among the towering pines. "We had fun, built stronger relationships and ate great," one member wrote on the Facebook page.
These military-style trainings have no connection to the US military or a government-sponsored militia. Yet they are legal so long as they don't cross the line into inciting violence or civil unrest. Under California law, it is illegal for a "paramilitary organization" to train with weapons if it engages in "instruction or training in guerrilla warfare or sabotage." Violators are subject to one year of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $1,000. When I asked the California attorney general's office if there was any reason to believe that CSM's activities might violate state law, a spokeswoman said the office was unable to provide any legal analysis and declined to comment further.
Nationwide, 41 states have laws that place restrictions on private paramilitary activity. The laws fall into two categories: those that limit or regulate private military groups and those that limit or regulate private military training. The penalties vary. In Idaho, training people in ways to maim or kill with the intent to further "civil disorder" is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or up to a $50,000 fine. In Pennsylvania, training people to use guns or bombs with intent to further civil disorder is a first-degree misdemeanor. Arizona law forbids anyone besides the government from maintaining "troops under arms"; doing so is a class 5 felony—a minor crime comparable to improperly storing used tires.
...Some anti-paramilitary laws have been around since the Reconstruction Era, when they were intended to prevent the reemergence of Confederate armies. Many have their roots in the 1980s, when hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan began running training camps. The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors extremist activity, was so alarmed by these reports that it drew up model anti-paramilitary legislation, and over the next decade, 24 states passed restrictions on paramilitary activity. The new ordinances were enforced against white supremacists in a few scattered cases.