Modern-Day Militias Rise in Virginia

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The Nelson County Sheepdogs June in their official formation on June 20 at Zenith Firearms, with a Viet Nam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter in the background. Submitted photo.

Militia groups in Virginia will tell you that a militia is not really something you have to join—if you’re between 16 and 55 and able-bodied, you already belong. 

Article 1, Section 13 of the Virginia Constitution says that a well-regulated militia is “composed of the body of the people, trained to arms” and represents the “proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state.”

“I’m a member of the militia, as are you,” said Nelson County resident Paul Cangialosi. “It exists, we’re in it, and my position is that we have an obligation to be well-prepared. We have neglected that for well over 100 years, so now we’re trying to put it back together.” 

Cangialosi volunteers on his own and in conjunction with the Virginia Militia Alliance (VMA) to help stand up local militias across the state, and there’s no shortage of interest. The VMA, whose motto is “Revive, Reestablish, Restore,” counts more than two dozen militia groups in central and southwest Virginia that have formed in just the past year, and hopes to eventually support one in every county in the Commonwealth.

Unsurprisingly, the ascendant movement has generated a lot of questions from neighbors and observers about its methods and aims.

What is their mission?

Nelson residents were curious to see signs advertising a “militia muster call” in late June, and more than 80 people, many carrying rifles, showed up to the gathering held on Zenith Firearms’ grounds on Rt. 151 to find out about the group’s mission and to meet other like-minded people. “The last time the militia was raised in Nelson and Amherst was in 1789 after the Revolutionary War when 680 citizens mustered under General George Washington, who led the Virginia militia as a whole,” said Don Heres, coordinator of the Nelson County militia group called the Sheepdogs. 

Though each group’s methods vary, the overarching goal of Virginia’s newly re-formed militias is to defend citizens’ rights under the Constitution. Much of their energy derives from defending their Second Amendment right to bear arms because they believe that a) that right will ultimately protect them against a tyrannical government, and b) that right is currently under attack by government at all levels. Sic Semper Tyrannis (a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants”) is a rallying cry for the movement and is also the Virginia state flag motto.

“We support Constitutional government and we use the Second Amendment as our main battle cry because we know the Second protects the First, the Fourth, the Fifth, and more,” said Heres. “We believe in the sanctity of private property. We don’t think we’re the cavalry out to save the world, and we don’t represent ourselves as law enforcement because that would be illegal. But we’re not going to let anyone burn our homes and businesses down.”

Why are they forming?

The past year has featured a string of events that worry Virginia residents who are concerned about local government overreach and what they see as a weakening of conventional law and order nationwide. Governor Ralph Northam’s promise to enact major gun control measures in late 2019 sparked a state-wide “Second Amendment Sanctuary” protest movement, culminating in a January 2020 Richmond rally where more than 20,000 “2A” supporters gathered peacefully to oppose the proposed legislation. Despite the demonstrated opposition, the Virginia legislature passed a series of laws including a restriction on handgun sales, expanded background checks, and a “red flag” law, and protesters wondered what to do next.

The answer, for many, was to organize a defensive network in the form of local militias, generally delineated by county boundaries. Floyd and Bedford County residents were quick off the mark, the latter holding a militia muster in February that attracted more than 500 people. Other groups soon followed suit—residents of Botetourt, Amherst, and Campbell Counties each held musters of over 100 participants in February and March, and others such as Augusta, Buckingham, Frederick, Henrico, Louisa, Rockingham, Smith, Wise, and Wythe Counties all have militias in various stages of formation.

“At the Richmond [Second Amendment] event I met a lot of like-minded people and I could not believe all of the different walks of life and diversity I saw there—that was very motivating for me,” said Botetourt Citizens Defense Group coordinator Scott Booher, whose group’s motto is “Others before self.”

“We decided to call a muster and set a date for two weeks later, and we had 360 people show up, including a lot of women and people of color from neighboring counties. There’s a huge amount of talent in the organization—software engineers, business owners, pilots—it’s amazing.”

Scott Booher, coordinator of the Botetourt Citizens Defense Group, speaks at a muster that attracted over 300 people in February. Submitted photo.

Appomattox and Nelson Counties revved up their militias in early summer. “The whole idea of the 2A movement was to send a message to Richmond, and we felt like we were ignored by the legislature,” said Nelson’s Heres. “So, our next step was to take it to the next level to prove that we are serious about the Constitution. We said, ‘Let’s get together to make it formal.’”

Militia members also point to national calls to “Defund the Police” in response to incidences of police brutality, as well as continued rioting in cities across the U.S., as reasons to form and support militias. “We can see that these [far-left] groups have already expressed the anarchy they’re willing to throw on people if they don’t get their way, and how law enforcement is being denigrated,” said Heres. “I think there’s an increased sense of urgency among us because of that.”

What do they do?

To attend a typical militia muster, volunteers must be between 16 and 55 and be able to lawfully possess a firearm, and are sometimes, but not always, encouraged to bring an unloaded semi-automatic weapon for inspection. Participants may not wear clothing bearing political messages, and may only display the U.S., Virginia, or local county flags. Interested citizens older than 55 may also be part of the militia in various supporting roles.

When they get together, these modern militia groups tend to spend their time training and preparing for situations where they may be called upon to help protect and defend their fellow citizens. Weekend training activities are coordinated by volunteers—often experts in their field such as law enforcement, ex-military, and medical professionals—and include events such as “rucks” (long hikes while carrying gear), firearms practice and gun safety lessons, and instruction on first aid, basic survival strategies, and patrol tactics.

“We had an instructor sponsored by the American College of Surgeons teach a class for us on care for trauma victims,” said Booher, “and we held a search and rescue training session so we’re prepared to assist the fire department, since we have the Appalachian trail running through this county and sometimes hikers get lost.” Many local militia groups have decided to emphasize community service in tandem with their training. Booher described leading a crew of 40 members to help rebuild New Freedom Farm, a horse farm that provides therapy for injured veterans in Buchanan that was heavily damaged in a late spring storm.

“Our primary goal is to be a service organization of the county,” said Heres. “I’m a CPR instructor for the Red Cross and we want to offer more basic first aid training, which would benefit all of us. And as there’s been a rash of people buying guns in the last few months, we want to step up and say let us teach you the safety side of it so you don’t shoot us or yourself.” 

Despite the positive optics of community service, some militia supporters feel that those activities should play more of a secondary role. “It’s not our primary objective,” said Cangialosi. “We may assist in finding a missing civilian, but that’s not what we’re training for. We should be spending our time preparing for what’s coming, potentially. People have normalcy bias—a hard time wrapping heads around extraordinary events—and if something catastrophic happened, we may not be prepared. I’m really discouraged by the lack of urgency everybody seems to feel at this point.”

How do they avoid extremist elements?

Militias are loosely defined as organizations of citizens who can be called upon for military or other service during a time of need, so the range of groups that refer to themselves as a militia is quite wide. Some militia-style groups active in the U.S.—from the Posse Comitatus of the late 1900’s to the Boogaloo movement of today, are animated by explicit racial or ethnic hatred and/or extreme anti-government positions, and some of their members have committed heinous crimes in the name of their ideology. 

As a result, the word “militia” has such a negative connotation that some local organizations are avoiding the moniker altogether, instead calling themselves “patriot” or “citizens defense” groups. “We initially called ourselves the ‘Nel-STAR’ team/militia, where ‘STAR’ stands for Special Task and Response,” said Heres, “and eventually changed our name to the Sheepdogs, because that’s really representative of what we want to be. We are not racists, we’re not white supremacists, we’re just normal people with normal jobs who love the country and support the Constitution.”

Don Heres, coordinator of the Nelson Sheepdogs, speaks at a muster in June that drew over 80 people. Submitted photo.

Many militia groups suspect that social media platforms such as Facebook are beginning to purge accounts with “militia” in the title. “I personally have been deleted from Facebook unannounced,” said Jennifer Bailey, administrator for the VMA. “They’ve removed a lot of my colleagues because they are trying to muzzle us—not everyone, but they’ve definitely cherry-picked us.” While some groups are migrating to other platforms such as Wimkin and Parler or forming closed groups, others feel the need for transparency and reassuring the public is more important than privacy.

“This whole movement is growing and our leadership teams talk about [how to vet our members] a lot,” said Booher, whose group set up an open informational website. “People may have the media-driven image that we’re some kind of gun-toting rednecks, but I have not run into any of that—racists, scoundrels, whatever you want to call it.” VMA groups require their active members to have a concealed handgun permit, which means they must pass a state police background check. “We also spend time combing profiles and looking for any kind of behavior that would raise concerns.”

Heres acknowledged that disagreements on social media got out of hand in the months before the Nelson Sheepdogs formally organized and changed their Facebook page to a private group. “People would [virtually] show up from other groups such as ‘Nelson Knows’ and get into political battles over everything,” he said. “There were people on our site who were not active with our militia, that had nothing to do with us, voicing opinions on there. People like that draw the wrong attention to what we’re trying to do; we don’t want radicals and extremists to come in and tarnish what we’re doing.”

“Vetting is a process that evolves as we train alongside people, and we have to police our own just like everybody,” said Cangialosi. “We had a fellow in the Campbell county militia who made some racist remarks to somebody on Facebook, and he was immediately cut loose from the group. Not a single militia that I know of at a county level in Virginia is organized around a racist premise. It’s just not what we’re here for.”

What is their legality?

The Virginia Constitution clearly establishes a “militia,” capable of bearing arms to defend the state, which consists of the Virginia National Guard, the Virginia Defense Force, and an “unorganized” militia which encompasses these smaller, self-formed groups. While the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individuals to bear arms and to peacefully assemble, Virginia’s Constitution states that an activated militia is governed by “the civil power.” This limitation implies that if a militia has not been specifically “called up” by the Governor or other civil authority, then it’s not allowed to respond to critical situations as a single defensive unit, and members may act only as individual citizens and must avoid any coordinated paramilitary-style conduct.

The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) is a watchdog group affiliated with Georgetown Law School that tracks and challenges what it calls “unlawful private paramilitaries” in the U.S. When armed citizens from multiple nearby militias defended a Lynchburg restaurant during a protest that turned violent in May, the ICAP accused them of breaking Virginia law by acting as an unauthorized “military unit,” carrying firearms “in furtherance of civil disorder,” and “exercising law enforcement functions.” 

The militia members said they had come to defend the restaurant as private citizens at the invitation of the owner on private property, not as law enforcement representatives. No charges were filed by Lynchburg police, but the incident illustrates the legal gray area surrounding militia activity and how members are able to respond to what they see as an emergency. “If the Governor is the one who’s supposed to call us up, what happens if he’s the tyrannical element that is obstructing us?” said Heres. “Northam is not going to call on us, he’s going to let Richmond burn down.” 

“It comes down to an individual’s responsibility to protect themselves and their community,” said Bailey. “If people are causing trouble and the Sheriff isn’t going to step in, then it’s the militia’s job to step in, and the militia is not going away.”

Even so, the VMA encourages militias to seek recognition from their county Boards of Supervisors and local Sheriffs to help them to “achieve Constitutional status.” “We are working to restore constitutionally legitimate militias in the state in a sustainable and unbreakable way,” Bailey said.

Cangialosi wonders about the durability of the movement after the Second Amendment issue fades from the headlines. “I think it’s easy to say ‘you’re not taking my guns away,’ but when the rubber meets the road, not a lot of people are willing to pay the price in terms of being prepared and committed. They’d rather sit at home and watch TV,” he said. 

Looking ahead, militia groups are concerned about the potential for chaos surrounding an uncertain election outcome in November, and are preparing to help maintain order if the need arises. “People say ‘we’re here to defend the Second Amendment’—I say no, we’re here to defend the Constitution,” said Cangialosi. “That means your right to print whatever you want in your newspaper, somebody’s right to protest for or against the police. It’s the whole thing that we’re defending, for everyone regardless of their race or political beliefs. It’s not about right or left politics—I’m not a Trump fan and I didn’t vote for him—it’s about being left alone to live the way you want, free from tyranny.” 

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