Unlawful Militia Threats to Watch for at Polling Places

What is a militia?

Federal and state laws generally use the term “militia” to refer to all able-bodied residents between certain ages who may be called forth by the government to defend the United States or an individual state. See 10 U.S.C. § 246.

When not called forth, they are sometimes referred to as the “unorganized militia.” A group of people who consider themselves part of the able-bodied residents referred to as members of the militia under state or federal law is not legally permitted to activate itself for duty. A private militia that attempts to activate itself for duty, outside of the authority of the state or federal government, is illegal.

How do I know if a group of armed people is an unauthorized private militia?

Groups of armed individuals that engage in paramilitary activity or law enforcement functions without being called forth by a governor or the federal government and without reporting to any government authority are acting as unauthorized private militias. They sometimes train together and respond to events using firearms and other paramilitary techniques, such as staking out tactical positions and operating in military-style formations. They often purport to have the authority to engage in military and law enforcement functions such as protecting property and engaging in crowd control.

These groups often engage in behaviors that show their intent to act as a private militia, such as wearing military-style uniforms, tactical gear, or identifying insignia; wielding firearms or other weapons; and operating within a coordinated command structure. Other factors—such as statements by leaders or members’ efforts to direct the actions of others—also may suggest that a group is acting as a private militia. Groups of armed individuals may engage in unauthorized militia activity even if they do not consider themselves to be “members” of a paramilitary organization.

Does the Second Amendment protect private militias?

No. In fact, the Supreme Court decided in 1886—and repeated in 2008—that the Second Amendment “does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations.” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 621 (2008) (citing Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886)).

Is it legal to act as a private militia in Arizona?

No. All 50 states prohibit private, unauthorized militias and military units from engaging in activities reserved for the state militia, including law enforcement activities. Arizona’s laws are described below:

Arizona Constitution: The Arizona Constitution forbids private military units from operating outside state authority, providing that “[t]he military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.” Ariz. Const. art. II, § 20.

Arizona Statutes:

Prohibition on private military units: Arizona law makes it illegal for groups of people to organize as private militias. It is a felony for any “person, partnership or corporation,” other than state and local law enforcement, “sheriff’s posses,” and armed security guards protecting businesses, to “maintain troops under arms.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. 26-123.

Prohibition on unauthorized wearing of uniform: In Arizona, it is a misdemeanor for any person “to wear any part of the uniform of the national guard” or the U.S. armed forces, “or a uniform so similar as to be easily mistaken therefore, unless the person is a member of the service whose uniform he wears” or a veterans association. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 26-170.

What should I do if I see armed groups near a polling place or voter registration drive?

First, document what you see:

  • What are the armed people doing?
  • What are the armed people wearing?
  • Are they carrying firearms? If so, what type? If not, are they carrying other types of weapons?
  • Are they wearing insignia? If so, what does it say or look like?
  • Are they bearing signs or flags?
  • Do they seem to be patrolling as a law enforcement officer might do?
  • Do they seem to be coordinating their actions?
  • Do they have a leader?
  • Are they stopping or talking to people outside of their group?
  • Do they appear to be provoking or threatening violence? If so, what are they doing specifically?
  • Are people turning away from the polling station after seeing or speaking with them?

Second, call Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to report what you see.

Assistance is also available in Spanish at 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888- 839-8682),

in Arabic at 844- YALLA-US (844-915-5187), and

Asian languages at 888-API-VOTE (1-888-174-8683).

A video call number for American Sign Language is available at 301-818-VOTE (301-818-8683).

This Fact Sheet has been prepared by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law Center, with the pro bono assistance of law firms Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Jones Day, and O’Melveny & Myers. ICAP’s mission is to use the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values. Visit us at www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/. Contact us at reachICAP@georgetown.edu.

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