Militias take aim at gun laws: “It’s about shooting tyrants in the face”

REVERB is a documentary series from CBSN Originals. Stream the latest episodes, “Gun Fight, Part One” and “Gun Fight, Part Two,” in the video players on this page.

On a cold winter morning last February, a woman named Samantha assembled her AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in the parking area next to Timbrook Public Library in Campbell County, Virginia. Her husband, Chad, had his AR-15 in hand and commented, “I would trust going into a gun fight right next to my wife. I’ve seen her shoot.” 

Samantha was one of a handful of women attending the call for volunteers to join a group calling itself the Campbell County Militia. Along with Chad and Samantha (who asked to have their last name withheld), over 200 people were at the event, most of them carrying arms. 

Kurt Feigel, a gun rights activist and militia organizer, told the group, “We are here today to send a clear and collective message to any would-be-tyrants that would attempt to disarm us: We will not comply.”

The formation of the Campbell County Militia is part of a larger movement organized by gun rights activists pushing back against gun laws Virginia enacted in 2020. They claim the new regulations, which include a “red flag” law and universal background checks for gun purchases, infringe on their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Virginia lawmakers shelved more controversial proposals that would have banned semi-automatic guns and high capacity magazines. Still, gun rights activists are bracing for a possible future ban. 

“We won’t comply. We won’t give up our guns,” said Feigel. 

Virginia became a battleground for the gun policy debate after Democrats swept both houses of the state legislature in 2019 on a gun safety platform, consolidating Democratic control of the state government.

Gun policy has long been a divisive issue in the United States. Even as support grows for stricter gun laws, the country remains deeply divided along partisan lines. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found 60% of Americans think gun laws should be more strict, up from 52% two years earlier. But the same survey also found 80% of Republicans think it’s more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership, while just 21% of Democrats agree.

In Virginia, gun rights supporters pushed back against the Democratic legislative majority. Over 90 counties and municipalities in the state passed Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions opposing the enforcement of certain gun laws. And there were calls to form local militias to give their movement some “teeth.”

“If we have the numbers, we can back up the statement — we will not be disarmed,” said Feigel. “[The Second Amendment] is not about hunting. It’s not about self-defense. It’s about shooting tyrants in the face.” 

Gun Fight, Part Two 25:04

The militia movement even garnered local government support in some counties. In March, the Campbell County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution backing the militia. Supervisor Matt Cline told CBS News via email: “The resolution was historic. To my knowledge, there has not been a constitutional militia recognized by a governing body since the Civil War.”

Mary McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, is troubled by the development. “I don’t like using ‘militia’ without ‘unlawful’ or ‘vigilante’ in front of it. The term militia, for some people, can note a lawful group, and they’re not lawful,” she said. 

Many so-called militia groups point to the phrase “well-regulated militia” in the Second Amendment to argue authority under the Constitution. But McCord says they’ve got it wrong.

“There’s a gray area in the Second Amendment, and there’s a lot of unanswered questions, but this is not one of them,” explained McCord. “Under the U.S. Constitution, it’s Congress that has the ability to call forth and regulate a militia through the Militia Act that established the National Guard.” States like Virginia have a similar framework where its governor can call forth the militia. McCord said, “No one else has that authority.” 

Historian and legal analyst Patrick Charles said the formation of the militias in Virginia around gun policy was significant. “It shows how polarized our politics have become,” he said. 

He also distinguished between making a strong statement and crossing the line into military action. “I would say it could be treason. Are they just acting on behalf of the First Amendment, ‘I’m declaring myself a militia’? Or are they performing state-sanctioned militia functions? If they’re doing the latter, that is arguably treason.”

All 50 states prohibit paramilitary organizations.

Kurt Feigel said he disagreed with the legal experts. “We have the right to assemble peacefully, and we have a right to defend our communities. Not as vigilantes, but we aren’t going to let people roll into our town and burn it down like in Portland and Seattle.” 

Gun sales in the U.S. have surged since March, fueled by concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and this summer’s protests over racial injustice and police brutality. In October, required background checks increased an estimated 60% compared to October 2019. 

Chad, who works in finance, said he and Samantha, a substitute teacher, are socially liberal on issues other than guns and the Second Amendment. “But if I give up that right, then there’s nothing I can do to defend my other rights,” he said.

He claims the county militias “are not inherently anti-government,” though he adds, “It could potentially be anti- certain people in the government if they become tyrannical.” 

Feigel doesn’t see room for a middle ground on gun regulation. “I have no interest in compromising with the opposition that would like to restrict my Second Amendment freedom. It’s a right,” he said.

Kurt Feigel, center, at a gathering for the Campbell County Militia in Virginia. CBS News

Lori Haas, senior advocacy directory for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says the militias’ stance is “the very definition of insurrectionism: ‘I don’t like the law, so I’m going to ignore it, and I’m going to use my gun to intimidate you.'” 

“The Second Amendment can be regulated. Regulations have been recognized as being constitutional,” Haas said. She got involved in gun violence prevention efforts after her daughter, Emily, was wounded in the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007, where 32 people were killed. 

McCord said, “Supporters of gun rights can express their opposition to gun safety legislation through speech and the right to petition their government. … They don’t have any constitutional right or authority to organize themselves as armed private paramilitary organizations, to oppose the government by using coercive and intimidating tactics.” 

She cited the situation in Michigan last spring when heavily armed protesters and militia members converged on the statehouse to oppose the governor’s pandemic restrictions. (Several men who took part were later charged in an alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.) 

“They have no authority to deploy publicly, while armed, organizing themselves together and asserting authority over the public to protect property [or] statues, that we saw throughout the summer during the racial justice protests.”

But frustration is growing for Chad and Samantha, who feel that Virginia’s laws go too far. “It just feels like our values are the ones always attacked, and we constantly have to defend our right to bear arms,” said Chad. 

“Even if their opinion is right and [the militia] is illegal, I don’t know that I care because the whole point of the militia is defending our rights.”