This much is certain: The militias are back.
After enjoying a heyday in the 1990s before fading into obscurity, the number of militias nationwide tripled from 2008 to 2009. One count puts the current number at nearly 200.
But here's the question: Just what kind of militias are these?
Many of the new ones certainly look different. They conduct blood drives, collect coats for the needy, denounce racism and condemn violence against the government.
True, they do it all while wearing camouflage and conducting paramilitary training exercises, but they say their mission is serving the community and preparing to help in disasters.
"The quality of the people we're attracting now is amazing," said Tom Mullins, a sergeant in the Missouri Militia.
But in the militia movement it is not difficult to find anti-government paranoia, conspiracy theories and several recent threats of violence, such as the nine Hutaree militia members in Michigan who were charged in March with plotting to attack authorities.
Law enforcement experts and others are wary of the "new and improved" militias.
"They're trying to fix their image, but so did Al Capone," said Jim Cavanaugh, a former investigator for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who retired in April after decades of tracking extremist groups.
"So you shouldn't be fooled by some of these Toys for Tots activities."
Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, agreed. "The vast majority of these attempts to perform civic duties are simply an effort to bring some credibility to themselves."
But militia leaders say their groups are unfairly labeled as a threat, and Cavanaugh said that may be true to some extent. The line between benign militias and dangerous ones can be blurry.
The vast majority of militia members are law-abiding, Cavanaugh said. The problem comes when some recruits are subjected to a constant anti-government indoctrination.
"After a while, some people just can't take the rhetoric and they turn into the McVeighs," he said.
Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing led to the decline of militias in the late 1990s.
The movement gained steam in the mid-1990s amid a series of events that evoked anti-government rage - fatal standoffs with federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993, followed by the Brady law in 1994 that banned assault weapons.
The earlier militias often didn't concern themselves with the images they presented, with leaders such as Brad Glover of Kansas proclaiming that he was "ready for war" against the government. But the militias came under intense scrutiny after the Oklahoma City bombing when it was discovered that McVeigh had attended some Michigan Militia meetings.
As a result, many militias disbanded, and the movement dwindled.
Now, it is making a dramatic comeback. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of militias grew from 42 in 2008 to 127 in 2009. The Anti-Defamation League puts the current number at 200.
Experts, and many militias themselves, say the growth is driven by anger that is spreading across the United States over the economic downturn, immigration, government bailouts and Obama administration initiatives that some critics consider "socialist."
"I think the general growth of anti-government anger in the mainstream has made these groups more palatable to some folks," said Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League.
John Trochmann, a co-founder of the Militia of Montana, said he also noticed the resurgence - especially at the gun shows he attends.
"There's a much larger, broader concern about losing the country we grew up in," said Trochmann, whose militia was one of the most visible in the country in the 1990s. "About a third of what comes into every gun show is a new face."
New media contribute to the militia surge.
In the 1990s, talk radio communicated much of the anti-government sentiment. Today, it is being spread to larger audiences by cable TV and the Internet. Training videos and speeches are easily accessible on YouTube.
Many militias now have their own websites, and some have MySpace, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The United Militias of America describes itself on Twitter as "more than a militia, we fight against degradation of society, pollution, immorality and more!"
A bright yellow Gadsden flag depicting a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan "Don't Tread On Me," flies with the American flag outside Bill Skolaut's home near Odessa, Mo.
Skolaut, a golf pro and the men's golf coach at William Jewell College, is a member of the Missouri Militia's 1st Battalion/3rd Brigade. His wooded land is one of several spots that the militia uses for its monthly field training.
Skolaut was reluctant to talk to The Kansas City Star, saying the media demonize militias that try to do some good.
"We raised over $4,000 worth of food a few months ago for a local food bank in Oak Grove," he said. "But it doesn't matter. We have the term 'militia' with us."
Skolaut isn't alone in saying militias get little credit for the good they do. Indeed, community service is a big part of the Missouri Militia, leaders say.
"We've been down to City Union Mission and worked with them," said Col. Randy Sumpter, the leader of Skolaut's unit. "We try to do two or three blood drives a year."
Mullins said that the militia members wear their uniforms when they give blood.
"We want people to see that we're not the big bad bogeyman that has been out there for many years," he said.
Apparently, their efforts are paying off.
"They're a good bunch of guys," said Thomas Owens, a technician who draws blood from donors at the Community Blood Center in Blue Springs. "As often as they can, they're in here helping out. I've stuck quite a few of them."
The City Union Mission also was glad for the militia's "awesome" help cleaning a basement and moving furniture, a spokeswoman said.
Members of the Missouri Militia's St. Louis unit recently helped authorities in Franklin County search for a missing 64-year-old woman. Although the woman has not been found, Capt. Don Jones of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department said his officers welcomed the help.
"Our county is pretty rural, so the more people we can muster up, the better," Jones said. "They were very professional, and we had no problems at all."
Critics are quick to question militia service projects.
"Don't be bamboozled," Cavanaugh said. "That's a publicity stunt. Why do you need to do it in your camouflage?"
According to watchdog groups, civic service masks the true agenda of many militias across the country.
"The problem isn't that you have well-meaning citizens offering to help the National Guard or help police search for missing people," Potok said. "The problem is that these are persons who are often armed and who are animated by completely false and demonizing conspiracy theories."
The Kansas State Militia shows both sides of community service.
Lance Garrison, who created the militia about two years ago, says he plans to pick up litter but he also promotes the right to openly bear arms.
"We're getting together an open-carry group who will openly carry our firearms and pick up trash," he said.
Pitcavage's response? "Well, you know, some of that trash is dangerous. You never know when the trash will fight back."
In Arizona, J.T. Ready also sees his new armed desert patrols as a civic service.
Ready, a neo-Nazi, says his border guard includes heavily armed militias that search for "narco-terrorists" and illegal immigrants in Pinal County.
"We have fully automatic weapons - legally registered - grenade launchers, night vision, body armor," he said. "We're definitely going out there fully armed and equipped. When you're going up against people with AK-47s and grenade launchers, you don't want to go out there with a slingshot."
Ready says response has been positive, but critics call it a prime example of militias creating tension and potential danger in public.
Guns and camo
Paramilitary training also creates confusion about the new militia's agenda.
Cavanaugh and others say that so much training in the woods with attack scenarios makes no sense except as preparation for an expected armed conflict with the government.
But Mullins says there is nothing threatening about the Missouri Militia's training, which simply prepares members in case they ever are called on to help in a disaster.
"If you look back to Hurricane Katrina, they were having rescuers who were being fired upon," he said. "That might be a situation where it would be good for people to have the ability to defend themselves, defend rescuers."
Although they also train with weapons, militia leaders say field exercises consist mainly of preparedness instruction.
"Our bread and butter is going to be what we can bring to the table as far as medical capabilities - helping out during disasters," Mullins said.
In May, members learned how to perform a tracheotomy, practicing with pig throats provided by a meatpacking plant.
"Hopefully, we will never have to do a tracheotomy on somebody, but if we have to, we know what we're doing," Sumpter said.
Sumpter said training also is essential for creating camaraderie. "I'm a former Army officer, and I still enjoy putting on the camouflage cream and running through the woods."
The field reports posted on the Missouri Militia's website describe the training exercises in detail. Dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, the men practice everything from logistics to ambush scenarios.
Training sessions at times resemble Scout campouts on steroids, according to the militia's field reports. Indeed, in one training exercise, militia members came across a group of Cub Scouts and went on alert.
Dubbed "Operation Eagle Eye," the training session required moving the unit down a grassy slope and into the woods without being detected. But according to the field report filed afterward, "as soon as we got in the woods our tail man called a halt and alerted us to movement behind us."
"Turns out a bunch of Cub Scouts were passing through the field we had crossed. We hunkered down and let them pass by, then got moving."
The reports also note flaws, such as the ones addressed in a camouflage session:
"Issues pointed out were ears were not painted, back of the neck, too much symmetry, and grass on the boonie cap too tall."
As for weapons, they run the gamut, Sumpter said.
"It's what they can afford," he said. "The guns are not the main part of it, but everybody enjoys shooting. I don't think there's anything more fun with a rifle than if you have a .22 and 500 rounds of ammunition under $20 and take the kids out for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon."
The Kansas State Militia draws members from across the state, including the Kansas City area, Garrison said. Like the Missouri Militia, it also puts a heavy emphasis on weapons and gear.
Members are required to own a semiautomatic "battle rifle" with 500 rounds of ammunition, a pistol belt, two canteens and a backpack with four days' rations for quick response. They also must have at least a 90-day supply of food.
Garrison carries a Glock 19 pistol and owns AR-15 assault rifles.
"In Wichita, it's legal to carry a firearm on your hip as long as it's unloaded," he said. "In Haysville, where I live, you can carry it loaded. I do it all the time."
Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says the armed training exercises raise concerns.
"Virtually all the paramilitary training is based on conspiracy-minded fears about the government coming to take people's guns away, to put them into concentration camps, to impose martial law and all the rest," he said. "This isn't so they can defend their homes against burglars or shoot squirrels if the economy goes bad."
Cavanaugh, the former federal agent, agreed. "Right now they say they're just preparing, but they're really worried that the government is coming to get them," he said.
Armed helpSome militia members already have been charged with plotting against the government:
- On June 11, a man who called himself a member of the Georgia Militia was arraigned on federal charges of taking guns across state lines to incite violence. According to court documents, Darren Wesley Huff said his and several other militia groups were planning to "take over" the courthouse in Madisonville, Tenn. Huff pleaded not guilty and awaits a January trial.
- In March, the Hutaree militia made national headlines when federal authorities arrested nine members, saying they were involved in a plot to wage war against the U.S. government and attack law enforcement authorities using illegal explosives or firearms.
- In 2007, federal agents raided the Alabama Free Militia, seizing 118 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. An informant who had infiltrated the group said members planned to attack Mexicans living near Birmingham. Authorities said the group regarded the government as "the enemy" and had orders to immediately open fire if federal agents approached. Six men pleaded guilty to weapons charges.
Some experts trace such incidents to militia beliefs.
"The New World Order conspiracy theories, which tend to proliferate on the extreme right, argue that basically all of politics in history can be explained by identifying some secret cabal that is pulling the strings," said Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University in New York.
But belief in such theories can dangerously alienate people and cause them to withdraw from conventional politics, said Barkun, the author of "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America."
"If someone believes in the conspiracy theories and also believes that the conspirators are about to make their final grab for world domination, they might very well move toward violence."
But some of the new breed of militias, including the Missouri group, say they distance themselves from those who promote conspiracy theories.
"We have some guys that come up to us saying, 'We've been looking for you guys.' And then they start in with the conspiracy stuff," Sumpter said. "And we say, 'Wait. What you believe in, keep it to yourself.'"
Mullins says the militia has no political agenda.
"We'll have a table at a gun show, but we're not doing it as much as we have in the past," he said. "We want to get quality people, and some of the people we pull from some of the shows, they have such a hard time letting go of some of those ideologies they might have."
Mullins said the Missouri Militia requires all members to undergo background checks, and the quality of people it attracts is high.
"One of our recent recruits is a private-practice physician," he said. "A lot of the guys, to see them out of uniform, you would never know."
But Mullins acknowledged that some militias endorse bizarre philosophies. "There are plenty of units out there where there are people that are simply on the fringe at best," he said.
The Arkansas Militia warns potential members that "If you ... think overthrowing the Arkansas or US Government is a good idea, this Militia is NOT FOR YOU!!"
Every member of the Arkansas Militia also is a member of the "Rat Squad," according to its website. Members are required to report anyone heard making racial slurs or talking about blowing something up, assassination or attacking law enforcement officers.
The Kansas State Militia's website has similar statements denouncing violence and discrimination.
"They say we're racist, that we're opposed to the current administration because Obama is black," Garrison said. "But it doesn't have anything to do with that. I didn't like Bush, either, because of the Patriot Act."
There are requirements to join the Kansas State Militia. One is to talk to Garrison. "I determine whether you're crazy or not," he said.
Garrison, however, is unapologetic about subscribing to many of the conspiracy theories circulating throughout the patriot movement. Among them:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency is building concentration camps in which to enslave citizens when martial law is implemented.
- The Federal Reserve is unconstitutional.
- The U.S. government bombed the World Trade Center in 2001. "I don't know if that's true," he said. "But I wouldn't put it past them."
- The "Doomsday Seed Vault" - the giant depository in the Arctic designed to protect seed samples from natural or manmade disasters and whose operation is funded in part by Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation - is really a plan to cause global starvation and reduce world population.
"If you look at the 1963 series $5 bill printed by Kennedy right before he died, he was going to take us off the Federal Reserve," Garrison said. "The note actually says United States note; it doesn't say Federal Reserve note. And a lot of people think that's why he was killed. The bankers control everything."
"Throughout history, you control people with food and nations with money," Garrison said. "They're really working on controlling the food."
But Garrison bristles at the term "conspiracy theory."
"These aren't conspiracy theories," he said. "These are facts. If you don't realize they're working on globalism and one-world order, you're crazy, because they are."