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Are These Guys Really Militias?

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The upsurge in gun rights protests in recent days has been accompanied by a term you've probably heard before: militias. Self-identified groups like the Michigan Militia and the Arizona Citizens Militia have received more than their share of attention in recent months. Added to that list is another so-called militia, the "Hutaree Militia," which made national headlines when nine of its members were arrested a few weeks ago for plotting to murder police in the hopes of instigating some kind of uprising against the government. One of the speakers who addressed a gun rights rally on April 19 in Arlington, Virginia, Mike Vanderboegh, was identified as a former leader of the "Alabama Minutemen."

All this leads to a question: who are these guys? Or more to the point, are they really militias, in the way that word is used in the U.S. Constitution and the Second Amendment ("A well regulated Militia," the Second Amendment begins)? The simple answer is No. Since the founding of the country, the federal and state governments have carefully regulated militias, and even though the government no longer "calls up" militia-eligible men for military service, preferring instead in times of necessity to draft men into the regular army, it retains the right of regulation. In fact, government authority over both real militias and paramilitary militia pretenders is longstanding.

Take the case of Herman Presser. When Presser and his socialist paramilitary group, the "Instruct and Defend Association," marched through Chicago streets with guns but no permit from the city, he was convicted of parading without a license. He appealed in what proved to be a major Second Amendment case. When Presser and his group argued that they had the right to function as a self-proclaimed military organization, the U.S. Supreme Court said no: "Military organization and military drill and parade under arms are subjects especially under the control of the government... They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law." In fact, the Court continued, to deny this power to the government would "be to deny the right of the State to disperse assemblages organized for sedition and treason, and the right to suppress armed mobs bent on riot and rapine." The only legal militia in the state of Illinois was the state's National Guard, the Court said. Presser lost in the case of Presser v. Illinois. The year was 1886.

If modern groups insist on using the label "militia," well there's no law against that -- just as I can dub myself the King of Prussia, if I choose. But historic groups like the real Minutemen of Lexington and Concord fame weren't just fighting against the tyrannical British, but for something -- for their new government, so that they could one day put down their arms and be governed democratically -- to choose their leaders by the consent of the governed. One can only wonder if the Minutemen of the 1770s would greet news of today's modern militia wannabes with a greater measure of derision or scorn.