Two bills now treading water in Congress would help to arm and train independent state militias across the country - militias that have attracted some Rambo wannabes, neo-Nazis and frustrated weekend warriors.
"State defense forces" were spawned during the early Reagan years as a backup to the National Guard, which is a backup to the military. They were created jointly by the Defense Department, the National Guard, the National Security Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.The original intent was to have state defense forces ready to keep order on the home front if the National Guard was deployed to a war with the regular military. They were also to play a role in FEMA's plans to keep the government operating during a nuclear war.
That scenario sounds more and more far-fetched in these post-Cold War days. Even during the Persian Gulf war, the largest military deployment since Vietnam, there were never enough National Guard personnel called up to require that any state defense force be pressed into duty. These forces-without-a-function continue to meet and train in at least 24 states, and their ranks are swelling with recruitment ads placed in publications that appeal to Rambo types, such as "American Survival Guide."
Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., and Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., believe these free-lance domestic warriors should be allowed to use the Pentagon's training facilities and be armed with leftover military weapons. But Spence and Thurmond will be hard-pressed to find many other lawmakers who agree with the notion of loading this loose cannon.
Journalist Ed Connolly investigated one state defense force, the Ohio Military Reserve, and reported his findings in "Columbus Alive" magazine. He said the group thought its job was to "suppress subversive activity," shoot terrorists and put down any gatherings that looked like a civil disturbance.
Some state defense forces are run by committed, honorable patriots who can be trusted with a gun, but others have proved to be an embarrassment and a potential danger to their home states.
Three governors have reorganized or shut down their state defense forces when they got out of hand. Utah Gov. Norman Bangerter removed all but 31 officers from the Utah State Guard after a probe revealed that the force was peppered with neo-Nazis, felons and mental patients. Some officers reportedly practiced assassination techniques, held desert commando exercises with live ammunition and outfitted one vehicle as a police car.
In New York, state officials examined the internal policy papers of their defense force and then banned public access to the papers for fear that the information was so volatile it could endanger state security if it got into the wrong hands.
Thurmond and Spence are the last in a string of lawmakers who have tried to help arm and train these state militias. So far, most state efforts to finance them have been gunned down when the facts came out about the nature of the militias.
A spokesman for Spence said that while some states may worry about arming their militias, there is nothing to worry about in South Carolina. He said the force there was dominated by older, retired National Guardsmen or soldiers. "It gives them an opportunity to demonstrate patriotism," he said.
He noted that letting the militias use government facilities and weapons wouldn't cost anything, but he was not optimistic that the measure will pass Congress. "There's not been a ground-swell of support, " he said.