In the swirls of disinformation that now pollute our political discourse, one is particularly dangerous: that private militias are constitutionally protected.
Although these vigilante groups often cite the Second Amendment’s “well regulated militia” for their authority, history and Supreme Court precedent make clear that the phrase was not intended to — and does not — authorize private militias outside of government control.
Indeed, these armed groups have no authority to call themselves forth into militia service; the Second Amendment does not protect such activity; and all 50 states prohibit it.
The danger of these groups was brought home on Thursday with the announcement that the F.B.I. had thwarted a plot by people associated with an extremist group in Michigan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the government.
Court documents say that the group discussed trying the governor for treason and murdering “tyrants.” Six men now face federal kidnapping conspiracy charges, but unauthorized militia activity continues in Michigan and elsewhere.
The unnamed militia involved in the kidnapping plot is part of a growing number of private paramilitary groups mobilizing across the country, wholly outside of lawful authority or governmental accountability. These organizations — some of which openly refer to themselves as “militias,” while others reject the term — often train together in the use of firearms and other paramilitary techniques and “deploy,” heavily armed and sometimes in full military gear, when they deem it necessary.
Sometimes they want to fight against the perceived tyranny of the states, as when they stormed the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., this spring to demand the end of the governor’s pandemic shutdown order, egged on by President Trump’s tweets to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
Sometimes they want to usurp the functions of law enforcement, as they’ve done in Kenosha, Wis., and elsewhere, purporting to “protect” property during racial justice protests, often in response to false rumors about leftist violence, rumors stoked by the president’s calls to designate “antifa” as a terrorist organization.
Most alarmingly, some of them are planning their own poll-watching and openly training in preparation for the post-election period.
Whatever their stated purpose, their conduct is unlawful and not constitutionally protected. Even before the adoption of the Constitution, the colonies recognized the importance of a “well regulated” militia to defend the state, in preference over standing armies, which they perceived as a threat to liberty. The militia consisted of able-bodied residents between certain ages who had a duty to respond when called forth by the government.