In past years, anxieties and misinformation around the COVID-19 virus helped fuel beliefs of an impending takeover of the everyday lives of American citizens by the federal government. Narratives around a supposed loss of civil liberties, eroding freedoms and increased censorship have become core beliefs in antigovernment circles. Ideas around the loss of civil liberties, combined with fears of impending gun confiscations, conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 general election and nativist fears, served as the bedrock for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
In 2022, much of the militia activity went underground. Real-world demonstrations have declined in favor of online networking, and groups have fled major social media platforms and regrouped on fringe social media networks like WeMe, Telegram and MyMilitia. In 2022 these groups are still spreading online misinformation and disinformation about the Biden administration’s efforts to tackle the issue of inflation, expand voting rights and find a solution to immigration debate.
The most significant moment for the militia movement in 2022 was the trial and conviction of Stewart Rhodes of seditious conspiracy, Nov. 29 Washington, D.C., jury found Elmer Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers militia, guilty of seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Five Oath Keepers were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding, Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell. Both Rhodes and Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Militia numbers have declined in recent years in large part as a result of the Jan. 6 Insurrection. With the general public and government agencies working to identify far-right extremists involved in the storming of the Capital, militia groups appear to have gone underground in 2022. High profile legal cases such as the public hearings organized by the U.S. House Select Committee tasked with investigating the J6 insurrectionists, have dampened the militia movement’s real-world activities.
Issues that once mobilized militia groups, such as second amendment rallies and Covid-19 protests subsided in 2022, resulting in some groups entirely shutting down while other groups, such as the Oath Keepers, losing both support and members.
The militia movement is rooted in the Posse Comitatus of the 1970s. The Posse Comitatus movement was based on the belief that the county sheriff had the ultimate authority over a county. The sheriff was then able to recruit adult men from the community and form a posse that would enforce peace and security. Under this idea the Federal government had no authority to overrule a county sheriff. Over the years the idea of the Posse Comitatus evolved and served as inspiration for what we now recognize as the paramilitary wing of the antigovernment movement. Current militia members believe they are true patriots, with many holding onto the notion that they are modern day versions of 18th-century colonists who banded together to fight off the British. The idea of the “unorganized militia,” standing up to a tyrannical government, helps shape their interpretation of the Second Amendment and cements their view that every American has a right to own firearms to keep the government in check.
As a result, the militia movement is primarily driven by fear of gun confiscation, globalization and antigovernment conspiracy theories; though these are perennial fears, the urgency among the movement to organize outside legitimate channels increases during liberal administrations.
Over time, conspiratorial ways of thinking have evolved, and today many militia members peddle such narratives as the idea that nefarious actors within the federal government are working alongside foreign powers to chip away the United States’ sovereignty.
The current militia movement began in the early 1990s following the armed standoffs between the government and extremist at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and in Waco Texas. The 11-day standoff took place in Aug. 1992 after Randy Weaver, a Christian identity adherent and the patriarch of the Weaver family, failed to appear in court for firearm related charges. These deadly standoffs, and opposition to Clinton-era firearms laws, led many gun-rights radicals to form paramilitary groups. Their ranks declined following the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, bombing and throughout the Bush administration, but former President Barack Obama’s election ushered in a second wave with new groups like Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
The movement employs both legitimate tactics (political activism, protests, community service) and illegitimate (paramilitary training and organization, armed standoffs, criminal and/or terroristic violence). Though its antecedent is the Christian Identity-inspired Posse Comitatus, the militia movement is not inherently racist. Since the U.S. Federal government's “War on Terror” effort to respond to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in a manner that was focused on Muslim people and helped spread fear of border security and the prevalence of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant narratives, the Militia movement has staunchly embraced nativist beliefs under a thin veil of national security.
Notable historical moments in the movement
- Oklahoma City Bombing, April 19, 1995: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The bombing killed at least 168 people and injured at least 680 additional individuals.
- Cliven Bundy’s Battle at Bunkerville, Nevada, July 10, 2014: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department engaged in a four-day standoff against Cliven Bundy and his antigovernment followers, including several militia members. The dispute, which originated over cattle-grazing fees, ended when the BLM withdrew to avoid a violent clash with antigovernment supporters.
- Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Occupation, Jan. 2, 2016: Antigovernment adherents and militia members descended onto the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Princeton, Oregon, for a 41-day standoff with law enforcement. The move, led by Ammon Bundy, was an attempt to get the federal government to hand over public lands to states.
- White Rabbit Three Percenters Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia, March 2018: Members of the White Rabbit extremist group operated a criminal network that planned to bomb an Islamic Center as well as vandalize a women’s health clinic. Two of the accused pled guilty and one was convicted and sentenced to fifty-three years in prison for the plot. Two of the men, Michael McWhorter, 33, and Joe Morris, 26, from Clarence, Illinois pleaded guilty in the District of Minnesota. The men were sentenced to 190 months and 170 months in prison. The leader of the group Emily Claire Hari, 51, plead guilty to federal terrorism charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
- Arivaca murders, May 30, 2018: Shawna Forde, leader of the militant group Minutemen American Defense (MAD), coordinated an attempted home invasion that ended with a double homicide when members of the group killed Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. The group, which operated on nativist fears, was hoping to find cash or drugs to help maintain their border vigilante operations. Forde and one other member were sentenced to death while a third member was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings.
- UCP Illegal detainment of migrants, April 20, 2019: The militia group United Constitutional Patriots gained national attention after the group documented their activities outside Flora Vista, New Mexico, while searching for and detaining migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Group leader Larry Mitchell Hopkins was eventually sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for illegal owning a firearm as a felon.
- Michigan Kidnapping Plot, Oct. 8, 2020: Members of the Wolverine Watchmen, along with members of the Michigan Militia, were arrested by the FBI and Michigan State Police after plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The group was motivated by wild conspiracy theories that aimed to overthrow the state government and murder the governor.
- Jan. 6 Insurrection, Jan. 6, 2021: Violent domestic extremists, including antigovernment militias like the Oath Keepers, stormed the Capitol building to stop the certification of the results from the 2020 general election. Members of the group face multiple federal charges. At least five people died in connection with the attack.
- Rhodes Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy, Nov. 29, 2022: Elmer Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers militia, convicted in U.S. District Court of seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rhodes and four other Oath Keepers – Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Cladwell – were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding. Meggs was convicted of seditious conspiracy as well.
2022 militia movement groups
* - Asterisk denotes headquarters.
American Patriots Three Percent
Arizona Border Recon
Bedford County Militia
California State Militia
Los Angeles, California
Carlisle Light Infantry
Good Citizen Militia
III% Security Force
III% United Patriots
Mt. Olive, North Carolina
Guilford County, North Carolina
Iron City CRU (Citizens Response Unit)
Butler County, Ohio*
Clark County, Ohio
Hamilton County, Ohio
Montgomery County, Ohio
Summit County, Ohio
Light Foot Militia, 63rd Battalion
Spokane County, Washington
Mayhem Solutions Group
Casa Grande, Arizona
Michigan Home Guard
Michigan Liberty Militia
Barry County, Michigan
Kansas City, Missouri
New England Minutemen
New York Militia TM
Broadalbin, New York
Schaghticoke, New York *
Tillson, New York
North East Ohio Woodsmen
East Rochester, Ohio
Chino Valley, Arizona
Las Vegas, Nevada*
Ohio Defense Force Home Guard
New Lexington, Ohio
Ohio Minutemen Militia
Oak Harbor, Ohio
Patriots for America
Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia
Pennsylvania Oath Keepers
Lake City, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia
Proud American Patriots Network
Real Three Percenters Idaho, The
South Central Pennsylvania Patriots
Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia
Southern Arizona Militia
Stokes County Militia
King, North Carolina
This is Texas Freedom Force
Three Percent of Washington
Vermont State Militia
White River Junction, Vermont
Veterans On Patrol
Buffalo. New York
Concord, North Carolina*
West Ohio Minutemen