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Private militias are the enemy of self-government

Reasonable Americans ought to agree no elected government can function if armed paramilitaries use force or the threat of force to overturn the will of the people.

A member of the Oath Keepers is seen as supporters of President Donald Trump riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

If we cherish our right to choose our leaders, we must crack down on private armed “militias.”

The U.S. Constitution and all 50 states ban armed militias that train together or show up in force at public gatherings. Under Illinois law, it is illegal for people to organize as a private militia without permission from the state.

Yet authorities nationwide have looked away as private militias — really unaccountable armed lawbreakers — do exactly that. Authorities also have ignored the dangerous spread of “open carry” laws, which allow vigilantes to tote military-style weapons to public gatherings and even into state capitols. Organizations that track militias say they are active in all 50 states.

Marching up Capitol steps

When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, militias known as the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters were among them. Video captured camouflage-clad men marching in an organized line up the Capitol steps with combat helmets, bullet-proof vests, gloves with knuckle protection and radios. On Monday, the FBI warned of possible armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C., in coming days.

For Americans who believe in democracy, that is very scary.

Reasonable Americans ought to agree that no elected government can function if armed paramilitaries use force or the threat of force to overturn the will of the people. How can government function when lawmakers and their family members are threatened with violence? Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center says that as of 2019, there were about 180 anti-government militias around the country engaging in military-style training.

Ignore at our peril

Government officials have tended to ignore the groups because they don’t recognize the extent of the threat, don’t want to stir up a blizzard of opposition from gun-rights groups or, in some areas, outright sympathize with the militias. Also, some police and prosecutors say anti-militia laws are so vague as to be unenforceable.

Laws need to be updated and enforced.

In court documents filed on Thursday, federal prosecutors, though not specifically singling out militias, said some of those who stormed the Capitol intended to “capture and assassinate elected officials.” Those are the kinds of people attracted to armed militias. And this is not the first time we have seen an attempt to overthrow duly elected governments. Members of a Michigan militia called the Wolverine Watchmen have been accused of planning to kidnap governors, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

­People who believe in their right to violently overthrow democracy have long been communicating with each other and reinforcing their twisted beliefs in online chat rooms and in message-board fever swamps. After Jan. 6, it’s clear they pose a clear and present danger.

“We are in the midst of another civil rights movement,” Kathleen Sances, president and CEO of the Illinois Gun Violence Prevention PAC, told us. “I think this is an effort to maintain a system of white supremacy.”

Some militia members are aligned with the so-called boogaloo movement, which seeks to prepare for or incite a civil war.

Easily led are swept along

Chicagoan Lee Goodman, who led pre-pandemic protests against gun violence, said he always tried to engage with opponents who showed up at his events.

Many of them were people who might have barely passed civics class in school and don’t really understand a political system based on democratic representation. They are swept along by individuals who share the same rhetoric who have violence in mind, he said.

“When they are told it is all about personal freedom, they believe it,” he said.

Real personal freedom requires a democratic government. America’s true strength is that it is a democracy governed by the will of the people. Armed private “militias” have no place here.

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