As self-described "patriots" take over a wildlife refuge in Oregon, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) yesterday announced its annual count of right-wing militia groups in America. There are 276 such groups — up from 202 in 2014, a 37 percent increase.
The nonprofit organization explained that "the number represents a renewal of growth after several years of declines. The movement grew explosively after President Obama was elected, from 42 groups in 2008 to a peak of 334 in 2011 before declining in recent years."
The militia groups, which have a focus on weapons, make up a portion of what the SPLC calls extreme antigovernment groups. In 2014, there were 874 of them in America, with 33 identified in Florida.
The SPLC has said that the numbers of such groups fluctuates wildly. In fact, every one of the of the groups named on the SPLC's 2014 list with a Broward or Palm Beach connection seems inactive today. The Facebook page for the South Florida chapter of We Are Change is down. The Constitution Party has a chapter in Jupiter but its website has not been updated since 2014. The SPLC lists a group called We the People as having a Fort Lauderdale chapter, but it seems to have little online presence.
New Times identified other similar militia groups, too. The Florida Militia for Freedom states that "A well organized militia is necessary for the preservation of freedom and the suppression of a tyrannical government. An attack on freedom is an act of war." The Florida Constitutional Guard claims to be made up of "concerned citizens that are determined to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We aim to return our nation to it's people." Neither groups responded to a request for comment. The Florida Militia is organized into four regions and holds trainings:
In the case of the Oregon standoff, even right-wing groups are divided. The whole ordeal began when two ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, started a fire on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and were sentenced to prison for arson. They served it, but the sentence was deemed too light and the Hammonds were ordered back to jail. They reportedly surrendered peacefully Monday. But their cause was taken up by other right-wingers, led by Ammon Bundy, who rallied cohorts to take over the wildlife refuge, expecting a standoff with law enforcement.
As federal agents failed to move in and the militiamen grew hungry, they were mocked soundly, and even national right-wing groups including the Oathkeepers declined to support the Bundys, saying:
We cannot force ourselves or our protection on people who do not want it. Dwight and Steven Hammond have made it clear, through their attorney, that they just want to turn themselves in and serve out their sentence. And that clear statement of their intent should be the end of the discussion on this. No patriot group or individual has the right or the authority to force an armed stand off on this family, or around them, against their wishes. You cannot help someone who does not want your help, and who are not willing and ready to take a hard stand themselves.
Florida has a law against militias — the “State Antiparamilitary Training Act.”
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Statute 790.29 states that anyone who teaches another person how to use any firearm or destructive device to further a "civil disorder" can be charged with a felony. The same goes for people meeting to practice shooting firearms in furtherance of creating a civil disorder.
At least one critic has said this law could be construed to be used against any firearms instructor. Yet the Anti-Defamation League — which counted only 13 paramilitary groups in America in 1994 —- has said that such laws are effective in stopping crimes, citing a thwarted organized white-supremacist plot to kill blacks.
The SPLC did not return a request for comment.