CONVINCED that lawmakers in Washington haven't read the Bill of Rights lately, Americans in at least 11 states are preparing to take civil disobedience to a dangerous new height.
Armed with assault rifles and full of contempt for many federal laws, particularly recent gun-control measures, groups calling themselves ``militias'' have held training exercises across the nation and claim to have recruited as many as 10,000 foot soldiers.
Likening themselves to the bands of colonial farmers and shopkeepers who fought off the British yoke, these grass-roots armies have formed, they say, to provide ``a visible and cohesive threat'' to anyone who would try to usurp their constitutional rights, particularly their Second Amendment right ``to keep and bear arms.''
``Most of these militias have used gun-control legislation as a catalyst for recruitment,'' says Danny Welch, head of the Klanwatch program at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. ``Many of these folks appear to be lawful ... but some of them may have a darker agenda.''
Sworn to uphold the Constitution, militia members say the Second Amendment's provision for a ``well-regulated militia'' is the only sanction they need; and they add in no uncertain terms that their list of potential targets includes the federal government.
``There are three methods to effect change,'' David Knight of the self-styled Michigan Militia told reporters, ``The jury box, the ballot box, and the cartridge box. No one in a right-thinking mind would choose the last one, but we must be prepared for all contingencies.''
Jonathan Mozzochi of the Coalition for Human Dignity, a civil rights group based in Portland, Ore., says the growth of militias is the manifestation of a political climate that is ``pretty sour right now, pretty reactionary.''
Topping the movement's list of grievances, Mr. Mozzochi says, are the Brady Bill and the ban on several types of assault weapons affixed to the recent Crime Bill. Other flashpoints include the North American Free Trade Agreement, affirmative action, abortion rights, and taxes.
Founded in Idaho in 1992, the movement has condemned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for raids on the Randy Weaver compound in Naples, Idaho, and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. While both raids stemmed from evidence that the groups were stockpiling illegally modified weapons, militia members say, under the Second Amendment, both groups were justified in resisting federal agents.
According to Department of Justice spokesman John Russel, unless these groups are known to be modifying weapons or plotting violent action, federal law-enforcement officials are not concerned with them.
``A group of men gathering on the weekends to go through some war exercises are about as interesting to us as a Boy Scout jamboree,'' he says.
Yet gun-control advocates are watching the militia phenomenon closely. Dennis Henigan, director of the Legal Action Project at the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, says the militia movement is a direct result of a ``profoundly dangerous'' new strategy by gun-rights groups aimed at unleashing the anger of their membership on Washington.
Mr. Henigan notes that in a 1982 case in Texas, a federal court upheld a statute that bars private citizens from forming private armies.
Federal code allows for both ``organized'' and ``unorganized'' well-regulated militias, but several federal court precedents have ruled that while groups like these self-styled militias may be unorganized, they do not qualify as well-regulated and are therefore not entitled to constitutional protection.
Citing the Second Amendment, Henigan says when they called for ``a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,'' the framers of the Constitution did not intend to create a means of resisting government authority. ``It would be impossible to provide a constitutional democracy if everybody thinks it was their right to take up arms when they lose in the political process,'' he says. ``That's a recipe for anarchy.''
But National Rifle Association spokeswoman Tanya Metaksa offers a different interpretation of the Second Amendment. She says the framers' intent was ``that an armed citizenry is an essential part of a democracy,'' acting as a check on government abuses.
Pointing to an Arizona statute permitting the governor to call on a ``state militia,'' she says the legality of such groups has yet to be definitively overturned.
Asked if militia groups are justified in taking military action when they deem their rights have been violated, Ms. Metaksa answers that she can only guess what their reaction would be, but Americans ``should be far more concerned about armed teenagers running around the inner cities'' than about militias.
Last month, in the dead of night, Officer Charles Glumb of the Fowlerville, Mich., police department stopped a car for crossing the center line of a two-lane highway.
Inside the car, in plain view, Officer Glumb found three loaded assault rifles, several handguns, 700 armor-piercing bullets, knives, gas masks, night-vision equipment, a two-way radio, and notes about police activities. He arrested the men.
Although the three occupants later skipped bail on charges of transporting loaded weapons, leaders of a group that calls itself the Michigan Militia came to their defense, calling their activities ``night maneuvers.''
According to literature obtained by law-enforcement agencies, members of the newly formed Michigan Militia consider themselves a Constitution-abiding, politically independent entity open to anyone over the age of 18. In public statements, militia spokesmen say their foremost concern is the onslaught of ``the new world order.''
As advanced by then-President Bush, the new world order was a post-cold-war scenario in which all countries would compete economically while cooperating in peacekeeping missions under the authority of the United Nations.
As militia members interpret it, the new world order is a government conspiracy in which the United States will submit itself to a world government administered by a ``socialist'' UN.
Russ Bellant, a freelance writer in Detroit who tracks militia groups, says that under the surface, the militia movement is bubbling with white supremacists, Zionist-conspiracy theorists, Christian ``reconstructionists,'' and anti-abortion militants.
Mr. Welch of Klanwatch says the real danger here is that Americans will write off the militia movement as a bunch of wackos.
``People stereotype these guys as a bunch of redneck ... weekend warriors; but they're not. I see a dark day ahead with these folks running around with assault rifles. It's scary.''