Militias seek official sanction as 'state defense forces'

The Kansas City Star/September 11, 2010

Members of the Missouri Militia envision a day when they will be called upon to assist state and local authorities - even the National Guard - in times of emergency.

The militia hopes for legislation that would officially recognize it as a volunteer "state guard" or "state defense force," ready to respond to natural disasters and civil unrest.

"We would welcome the chance to be of use to the state," said Randy Sumpter, a colonel of the Missouri Militia's 1st Battalion/3rd Brigade.

That may seem to be an unusual ambition, but such state auxiliary forces already exist.

In fact, Texas has a state guard that Gov. Rick Perry activated in June to assist with the response to Hurricane Alex. More than 750 members were called to duty to open and maintain shelters and assist the American Red Cross.

But critics contend that state defense forces can attract extreme elements.

In 1990, for example, lawmakers ordered an investigation of the Virginia Defense Force after receiving complaints that members were saving up money to buy a tank. Utah's governor dismantled the Utah State Guard in 1987 after authorities discovered that some officers in the guard had practiced assassinations.

It may be an uphill battle to establish new forces.

An attempt to create one in Oklahoma earlier this year hit a brick wall in the Legislature, and a similar measure in Montana died last year in a House committee.

Missouri officials aren't enthusiastic about the idea, either.

"We've got about 11,000 members of the Missouri National Guard and the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard," said Scott Holste, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon. "The Guard really has shown itself to be capable of responding not only to the natural disasters we've had in Missouri, but also in carrying out its mission when those units have been deployed to the Middle East."

State guards are hardly a new concept, yet few people are aware they even exist. Indeed, 22 states - but not Missouri or Kansas - have active state defense forces. Besides the Texas State Guard that helped after Hurricane Alex, the California State Military Reserve helps that state's National Guard troops with security at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.

A de facto force already is operating in Arizona.

J.T. Ready, a neo-Nazi who recently began conducting heavily armed desert patrols in search of "narco-terrorists" and illegal immigrants in Pinal County, told The Kansas City Star that he was working on a proposal seeking state approval for his group, the U.S. Border Guard.

"I'm putting together a package and presenting it to the Arizona Legislature and saying, 'Why don't we go ahead and make the border rangers official, or completely reactivate the Arizona Rangers and we'll work together,'" he said.

The Arizona Rangers were created in 1901 to protect the territory from outlaws and rustlers. The group was re-established in 1957.

But watchdog groups say Ready's patrol illustrates why states should not sanction defense forces.

"We know that the neo-Nazis carry guns, but here's an example of neo-Nazis with guns trying to position themselves to become an instrument of state policy," said Leonard Zeskind, the president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

Mark Pitcavage, a historian and the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, said state defense forces became popular in World War I because of a concern that if National Guard troops were sent overseas, there wouldn't be anyone left to deal with civil unrest at home. The state defense forces diminished after World War II.

In the 1980s, there was a resurgence when the Reagan administration encouraged states to begin forming them again.

Many members of the groups were retired military personnel, Pitcavage said, and others were "weekend warriors" who enjoyed the notion of serving. But increasingly, the state defense forces became a haven for right-wing extremists, "Rambo wannabes" and white supremacists, Pitcavage said.

"Individuals could conduct paramilitary training, indulge in military fantasies and even claim a mantle of legality and legitimacy," he said.

Pitcavage said extremists infiltrated some units and took over others. Some states, he said, had to purge units and even ban their entire forces because of it.

In Virginia, the General Assembly launched an investigation of its state defense force in 1990 after hearing that a brigade was saving up to purchase a tank and some units were practicing drug raids. A few years earlier, authorities discovered that some Utah State Guardsmen were neo-Nazis and felons, and some officers had practiced assassinations and conducted commando desert exercises with live ammunition.

In 1984, a Vietnam War veteran who led a Texas State Guard unit was ousted for engaging his group in Rambo-style paramilitary training that included parachute jumps.

"To this day, a lot of people involved in those groups are completely flaky," Pitcavage said.

But Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and an expert on militias, said he saw no problem with such groups being involved with state defense forces.

"It's not some crazy idea that someone has come up with out of the blue," Reynolds said. "Historically, that's how militias were organized. It's sort of back to the future." Reynolds, the author of the widely read political blog Instapundit, said the state defense force has operated in Tennessee for many years.

"I've never heard any problems about it," he said.

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