The armed men from Rhode Island, arrested on the July Fourth weekend on a Massachusetts roadside, described themselves as a militia en route to Maine to engage in training exercises. They call themselves “Rise of the Moors” and are a Black variant of the “sovereign citizen” movement, which claims to be not subject to federal or state laws.
This incident should alert the public and media to the threats posed by such individuals and groups.
According to the FBI some 300,000 people or more, often loosely organized, see themselves as “sovereign citizens.” They hold themselves separate from the United States, though living in it. They claim to be “self-sovereign” and answer to no government authority: most of all, any taxing entity.
Since they reject the authority of law enforcement, the FBI classifies the 100,000 or so hard-core believers as domestic terrorists. Their acts of violence are largely individual responses to regulation, from resisting a traffic ticket to assault and murder.
Some engage in “paper terrorism,” which clogs the courts with dozens of bogus filings, such as false property liens and deeds to homes, and fake tax forms. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that 500,000 tax resisters are among them.
The potential for violence stems from sovereign paramilitary groups similar to that posed by the non-sovereign Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other militias that during 2020 stormed state capitols and spearheaded the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Yet private paramilitary entities operating outside state authority are illegal in all 50 states and are also banned from assuming police duties that Oath Keepers and others provided at Trump rallies, Black Lives Matter protests and white supremacist rallies.
All 50 states also ban “unorganized militias” from holding training sessions and using firearms in military-style exercises and operating outside of state power. Yet during 2020 and after, unauthorized private militias and armed individuals in military-style garb have enjoyed free rein.
The relevant laws and constitutional provisions are often not known to authorities responsible for keeping order. Unfortunately, many local authorities and police share the politics of armed groups. Sheriffs in rural counties in Western states cultivate friendly relationships with private militias and invite them sometimes to join search and rescue parties.
The association of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers, which asserts that federal and state governments are subordinate to local authority, is ardently recruiting sheriffs. Its founder, former Graham County, Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack, barnstorms the country supported by the National Rifle Association and gun-owners’ groups denouncing the federal government as the “biggest enemy” of the Constitution and keeping the peace.
Mack’s claims that his “Army to Set Our Nation Free” has enlisted several hundred sheriffs are likely inflated, but dozens have participated in his rallies and lobbying. Mack has recently allied with AriseUSA, a fusion of anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theories and Posse Comitatus devoted to fighting the “deep state.”
States and the federal government have tools to limit and ultimately marginalize unauthorized militias – if they will use them.
The Moors, like other paramilitary groups and gun rights extremists, erroneously believe they are protected by the Second Amendment. But a conservative Supreme Court majority has said otherwise. The court in 2008’s D.C. v. Heller predictably struck down a District of Columbia ban on owning guns in the home and affirmed individuals’ rights to bear arms.
But the court also described the Second Amendment right as “not unlimited.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stated that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions … forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings …. .”
Scalia added that the right is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever.” Given that the amendment referred to weapons “in common use at the time,” he stated, another important limitation consists of “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ ”
All of which makes for potentially explosive confrontations between paramilitaries and federal and state enforcement. The Biden administration’s new focus on home-grown terrorism as “the most lethal and persistent” threat to the homeland is just the beginning.