Militia: if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all

In the aftermath of the jihadist terror attacks on a recruiting office and reserve center in Chattanooga, patriotic Americans have stepped up to provide armed security at similar locations around the country, citing the military proscription on uniformed soldiers being armed for their own self-protection.

Some of these protectors have acted independently and spontaneously, but many have done so in response to a “National Call to Action” ( by the Oath Keepers, an organization originally founded to encourage loyalty to the oaths taken by military personnel, public servants and others to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, in the event of a conflict between those oaths and unlawful orders.

That original, laudable focus has been weakened by the organization’s tendency toward direct action, which has led to high-profile involvement in the Cliven Bundy ranch confrontation in Nevada, the civil unrest in Ferguson, and now the terrorist threat to military personnel in-country. In these instances, Oath Keepers have acted in the guise of a citizen’s militia. Without entering into a debate on the merits of any of these particular causes, let’s consider what might go wrong, and how thoughtful patriots might approach such issues.

When civilians arm themselves within the law and interpose themselves into situations beyond legitimate self-defense – a fair description of all three situations cited above – they invite miscalculation and tragedy.  Let us count the ways.

  1. American history blends with myth in the imagination of many patriots. The militiamen who stood on Lexington Green and at the Concord Bridge in 1775 were not spontaneous gatherings of outraged, doughty farmers. The Massachusetts militia was a large, articulated, organized force, with a clear hierarchy of rank, chain of command, alert and mobilization procedures and protocols, and (contrary to popular legend) significant training in the military tactics of the day. On April 19, 1775, there were 47 regiments, and 14,000 men, in the Massachusetts militia. Their constituent companies were organized, led, and trained by commissioned and noncommissioned officers resident in their local communities. The structure, cohesion, and effectiveness of the militia dated back to the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This is what the founders meant by “a well regulated militia” in the language of the Second Amendment: they had fifteen years’ recent experience to teach them the difference between a well-regulated militia and an undisciplined, ineffective rabble in arms. What Oath Keeper chapter, or other self-styled militia organization today has comparable organization, cohesion, training – and above all, a comparable sanction from their local communities and governments?
  2. The British expedition on April 19, 1775 that provoked the mobilization of the Massachusetts militia was not unprecedented. Indeed, the colonists embodied the nearly contemporary advice of Edmund Burke that “It is no inconsiderable part of wisdom, to know how much of an evil ought to be tolerated,” and “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” Their resort to arms was preceded by years of political engagement with the British authorities, and by several other militia call-outs in the face of British military expeditions into the countryside, none of which had resulted in shots fired. It is perhaps instructive that the chain of command – from the colonial government down to company officers – worked to ensure restraint and avoid outright rebellion against governmental authority until the British Crown closed down all other avenues of redress. Where is that chain of command, where is that link to local and state governance, and that assurance of wisdom and restraint, in today’s self-styled ‘militias’?
  3. The Oath Keepers’ call to action to protect military recruiting offices includes a wise and necessary admonition: “Be sure that those on the armed teams belong there. Are they cool, collected, trained, experienced, competent and safe with [their] firearms?”  But in a voluntary association without enforceable rank structure, command control and military discipline, and without a formal program of training, qualification, and certification, who is to be the judge of their fellows, as to what constitutes an acceptable demeanor, or competence and safety with arms? And what happens when an individual judged – by one of his peers – to be lacking in one of these areas is asked to excuse himself – and declines?
  4. Tactics. There are many tactical considerations in the sort of security operation that citizens are trying to conduct around recruiting offices, but judging superficially from the photos in the media, these operations may at best provide some degree of deterrence by their visible presence – but no defense at all. Standing with rifles slung at the ready, in combat gear and some identifying hat or armband, in front of the plate glass windows, or sitting on the tailgate of a pickup next to the cooler, simply invites the initial volley from any determined attacker. Double the body count, and for what? This sort of visible presence makes for great publicity shots, but is not the way to win a fight.  Or let’s consider what happens in the average urban or suburban setting even if the defenders are better situated, or sufficiently alert and reactive to a threat, and are able to initiate or return fire. We are not talking about an overseas war zone, but a domestic peacetime environment, where as any trained shooter knows, “you own the final resting place of every round you fire.” How many of those 5.56mm rounds, fired by well-meaning patriots of inconsistent and unknowable proficiency, will miss their intended target and travel with lethal energy a mile or two – or until they stop in the car, home, business, church, school, or body of an innocent? One of the well-known “Four General Firearms Safety Rules” is to “Be sure of your target and what’s behind it,” but what I see in most of these locations is 180 degrees or more where potential threats might appear, and where the background is simply the local community these volunteers mean to protect.
  5. Lawfulness and liaison. The Oath Keeper guidance also stipulates that: “It is best that you also notify the local police and coordinate with them, if possible… if the local police are not supportive, or even hostile, deal with and work around it to be sure the recruiters are protected.”  Indeed, in many jurisdictions, armed citizens’ contributions have been acknowledged and accepted by the authorities, but let’s think about the situations where, inevitably, this will not be the case. High profile armed citizens post themselves in public settings to protect persons other than themselves, and property that is not their own, without the knowledge or blessing of local law enforcement. What could possibly go wrong here? What will their mere presence, or in the worst case an actual firefight at that location, do to improve relationships between the police and citizen groups like Oath Keepers? Acting as an armed group, not under color of law, and without the sanction or support of local law enforcement, is an invitation to fratricide, to arrest and prosecution on pretext if not on substance, and to a worsening state of relations among the formal and informal protectors of public safety; might as well just form a circular firing squad and have done with it.  Perhaps if the local police are not supportive, a means should be found to change that paradigm before posting armed sentries in public settings, in defiance of them.

Those of us who, unlike our federal government, acknowledge that Islamic jihadists are waging war against us anticipate further incidents like what just happened in Chattanooga. Just as civil aviation has not been successfully targeted since 9/11, we may not see another attack on a military recruiting office. But soft targets abound, in a society enamored of “gun-free zones.” If the next ISIS-inspired attack is on a school, where under federal law no one can be armed except, perhaps, the lone school resource officer, the outcome will be far more horrific than what we saw in Chattanooga. In the aftermath – it’s almost too much to hope that Americans will anticipate this threat and act to deter or defeat it before it is executed – the need for citizen involvement will be even more acute.

This is why it is important that Oath Keepers, and other concerned, responsible citizens get this right. If private citizens stepping up to this security challenge cannot act safely and responsibly; if they overreact or misjudge a potential threat, and cause or contribute to the loss of innocent lives; if they make themselves a radical armed fringe group acting without the endorsement of their communities and local governments – then the concept of armed citizens contributing to public safety will be discredited, perhaps fatally. Those who sound alarms now at the government’s identification of ‘militia’ groups as potential terrorists or enemies of civil order “ain’t seen nothing yet,” compared to the reaction that will inevitably follow a botched extra-legal operation that sees citizens hurt or killed, and the armed citizens led away in handcuffs.

In at least one state, the Oath Keepers chapter is getting it right: they are quietly coordinating with recruiting offices, and planning to maintain a low-profile armed presence in the vicinity, of citizens with concealed carry permits, carrying concealed handguns only, and within their rights and the strictures of state and local statutes.  They will wear or carry pre-arranged identifiers to assist themselves, the recruiters, and first responders in telling good guys from bad guys, and they will coordinate closely with local law enforcement to allay police concerns and further ensure no misidentification and “blue-on-blue” engagements. We hope that the vetting process represented by state concealed-carry permit laws will be strengthened by an internal review of volunteers’ state of training – and state of mind.

Full disclosure: I am a principal at Pulse Firearms Training, Inc., where we have been wrestling for some time with these issues, and have created a training program that goes well beyond individual firearms training to address the thorny problems of creating private security networks to defend businesses, churches, schools, neighborhoods, and communities when the social contract with the state proves inadequate – when police response is delayed or inadequate because of budget, manning, or politics (consider Detroit for the emerging pattern). We certainly have no monopoly on good ideas, but this is what we urge, for the Oath Keepers and for any citizens facing today’s metastasizing threats:

  • Get training. Real training. Yes, we have a vested interest in training. It’s why we created our business. Anyone who thinks guns, ammo and training, and the skills and discretion to apply them safely, legally, and effectively can be had for free – will get what they pay for. And the rest of us will pay the ultimate price with our own freedom and security.
  • Organize, plan, vet your people, coordinate with lawful authority, and act within the law.
  • Identify the threat. Read the Edmund Burke quotes above, and think long and hard about treating government – at any level – as the threat. Just as our Founding Fathers did, we can conceive of that terrible possibility, and honor our oaths to prevent it, but it is not here, and it is not now. There are many people across the sea, across the southern border, and among us – who regularly demonstrate their desire to put your severed head on a pike, and they are not your fellow Americans, in or out of government. “Aim small, miss small.”
  • For this reason, we refuse to endorse or sanction “operations,” “missions,” or “calls to action” that go beyond defending your own life and property, or those of your closest family, friends, and associates by means firmly within the law. Going beyond that is a very risky proposition and must be approached with great caution and discretion – if at all.
  • Indeed, far more likely – and imminent – than the possibility of government becoming a danger to your liberty that cannot be addressed through civil, political process, is what we already see beginning to happen. Government’s ability to ensure your safety may simply degrade to the point where nobody is there to enforce the laws when you need them – at the point of contact. At that point, when self-reliance emerges as a necessity rather than an indulgence or an ideology, successful precedents may lead the authorities to see the wisdom of our building self-reliant networks, and to remove legal impediments to our doing so.

Good heart is not enough; American patriots have that in great measure. It is vital that armed citizens establish those precedents – earn the confidence of society and the authorities – by acting in a disciplined and judicious manner.

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