Armed Extremism Primer: Sovereign Citizens
From the Oklahoma City bombing to the more recent summer 2021 armed standoff in Massachusetts, the movement of individuals subscribing to the “sovereign citizens” ideology represents a continued threat to public safety. The American sovereign citizen movement rejects the legitimacy of modern American federal and state government and believes that citizens have entered a contract with the state that is corrupt and unjust. Its members reject laws enacted at any level higher than county government. These individuals often engage in what is known as “paper terrorism,” which consists of the use of falsified legal documents and/or frivolous lawsuits to cause disruption.“1Sovereign Citizen Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/sovereign-citizen-movement. Acts of paper terrorism include the filing of frivolous liens against judges or prosecutors or the filing of false bills of credit (essentially fake checks).“2Paper Terrorism,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2017/paper-terrorism.
Sovereign citizens have also engaged in armed and violent confrontations with authorities on multiple occasions. Indeed, a review of these confrontations indicates that guns are particularly important tools for a movement that seeks to deny the rule of law.
The sovereign citizen movement has its origins in the Posse Comitatus (Latin for “power of the county”), a racist far-right movement that evolved in the 1970s.“3Sovereign Citizens Movement,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/sovereign-citizens-movement. One of the originators of the Posse Comitatus, William Potter Gale, was an antisemitic white supremacist obsessed with the purity of white Anglo-Saxon Christians and their supposedly special status as God’s chosen people—anyone who did not fit into this category was inferior and subhuman.4Daniel Levitas, “The Terrorist Next Door,” The New York Times, November 17, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/17/books/chapters/the-terrorist-next-door.html.
One of the primary motivations for the creation of the Posse Comitatus was a desire to avoid federal legislation and taxes; racist attitudes informed and complemented this objective, as adherents wanted to stop the government from collecting taxes to fund programs that would benefit minority communities.5Stuart A. Wright, “Patriots, Politics, and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” Cambridge University Press, June 11, 2007, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/patriots-politics-and-the-oklahoma-city-bombing/C0F5028E289BF7C202AD846F72D07B9D. Gale spearheaded the Posse Comitatus movement with the aim of developing a legal argument for the dismissal of federal law in favor of a system in which the county sheriff was the highest (and in fact, the only) authority. Very similar discredited legal arguments, exposing county superiority over state and federal law, have been justification for so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolutions that have been passed in several counties that purport to nullify certain state and federal laws relating to firearms.6Everytown Law, Legal Memorandum on Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions in Virginia, January 24, 2020, https://everytownlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/07/ET-Memorandum-Sheriffs-2.pdf.
Though its origins lay in racist ideology, today, the reasons for which the sovereign citizen movement wants to deny federal law have evolved. For example, the Moorish sovereign citizen group broke off in the 1990s; its members, who call themselves Moors, believe that Black Americans are an elite class to whom federal laws do not apply because they were the first inhabitants of the United States.“7Moorish Sovereign Citizens,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/moorish-sovereign-citizens. While this branch’s motives are different from those of the original sovereign citizens, their strategies and tactics are similar.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher with the Anti Defamation League and an expert on sovereign citizens, has noted that “Historically, the sovereign citizen movement has been able to exploit bad economic times and use the pool of desperate people as a recruiting ground.”8Kevin Krause, “Sovereign Citizens Allegedly Filed $3 Million Fake Award Against Judges to Harass Them,” Dallas Morning News, March 26, 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/sovereign-citizens-allegedly-filed-3-million-fake-award-against-judges-to-harass-them/ar-BB1f0aGv. Law enforcement have reported the increasing threat of sovereign citizens. In Nevada, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo reported that sovereign citizens are a “definitive threat”, and that the threat “has increased overtime in the last few years, individuals that have an axe to grind with government or society.”9Sabrina Schnur, “Sovereign Citizens Top Threat to Law Enforcement, Officials Say,” Las Vegas Review Journal, Nov. 27, 2021, https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/local-las-vegas/sovereign-citizens-top-threat-to-law-enforcement-officials-say-2486849/.
It is important to note that sovereign citizens typically do not organize in a traditional group hierarchy with a clear structure, but rather are a more amorphous movement.
Role of Guns in the Sovereign Citizen Movement
Sovereign citizens fall under the umbrella of the wider right-wing anti-government extremist movement. Oftentimes, this overlap can come in the form of a fixation on guns. In that sense, sovereign citizens’ rejection of authority of a supposedly illegitimate federal government aligns with classic gun lobby rhetoric, which claim that any federal regulation on firearms are a purported step towards looming authoritarianism.
This connection was made clear early on with the case of George Lee Kindred, one of the first members of the sovereign citizen movement’s precursor, the Posse Comitatus. Kindred had been a member of a militia that organized and trained to fight a perceived communist takeover in the U.S. Also an adherent of the racist Christian Identity ideology, Kindred was drawn to the Posse Comitatus, which allowed his white supremacist and anti-tax sentiments to coalesce. In his newsletter, Kindred engaged in fearmongering and cultivated paranoia surrounding what he claimed was an impending Black uprising; in 1968, he urged, “DO NOT REGISTER OR SURRENDER YOUR FIREARMS – REGISTER COMMUNISTS INSTEAD!”10Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, p. 125 St. Martin’s Griffin, January 20, 2004, https://archive.org/details/terroristnextdoo00levi/.
While guns are not essential to the sovereign citizen movement’s ideology per se, they have been utilized in several incidents of violence committed by its followers. The easy access to guns in the United States make firearms an instrument of violence and intimidation for the movement’s adherents.
Sovereign Citizen Violence
February-June 1983In North Dakota, a leading figure in the Posse Comitatus movement, and his family were met by U.S. marshals at a roadblock on February 13, 1983. The man was to be arrested for violating his parole, having just attended a Posse Comitatus meeting. A shootout took place, killing two federal marshals. The posse comitatus member escaped and remained a fugitive until June, where he was killed in a shootout with marshals at a farmhouse in Arkansas.11“Timeline of shootout in Medina, ND,” Grand Forks Herald, February 10, 2013, https://www.grandforksherald.com/news/timeline-shootout-medina-nd.
April 1995The infamous Oklahoma City bombing took place on April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two anti-government extremists, detonated a homemade bomb in Oklahoma City’s federal building, killing at least 168; the attack is still the largest act of domestic terror on U.S. soil. Both McVeigh and Nichols viewed the American government as corrupt, and Nichols was a sovereign citizen.12FBI Training Division, “Sovereign Citizens: A Growing Domestic Threat to Law Enforcement”, Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1, 2011, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/sovereign-citizens-a-growing-domestic-threat-to-law-enforcement; Michelle M. Mallek, Uncommon Law: Understanding and Quantifying The Sovereign Citizen Movement, p.71 Naval Postgraduate School, December 2016, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=798893. (“I no longer am a citizen of the corrupt political corporate State of Michigan and the United States of America…I am a ‘Non Resident Alien’ to the State of Michigan and the United States of America. I am a natural born human being born in the area you call Michigan not the corporate State of Michigan”). While guns were not utilized in this act of terrorism, Nichols himself had his own gun show business and was in possession of 16 firearms, which federal agents seized following the attack.13Robert Boczkiewicz, “Federal authorities acknowledge having some of Terry Nichols’ guns,” Tulsa World, September 3, 2015, https://tulsaworld.com/news/state-and-regional/federal-authorities-acknowledge-having-some-of-terry-nichols-guns/article_3f62a596-e973-59f5-9b77-4c704c086fa0.html.
March 1996The Montana Freemen was a group located outside Jordan, Montana who considered themselves sovereign citizens not subject to federal law. They had been engaging in paper terrorism in their local area across an extended period of time as well as intimidating neighbors.14“Taking law in their own hands Montana Freemen: Have guns, will intimidate judges and neighbors,” The Baltimore Sun, April 2, 1996, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1996-04-02-1996093051-story.html. This behavior included offering falsified checks to arms dealers in an attempt to increase their supply of weapons.15James Brooke, “Officials Say Montana ‘Freemen’ Collected $1.8 Million in Scheme,” The New York Times, March 29, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/29/us/officials-say-montana-freemen-collected-1.8-million-in-scheme.html. On March 25, 1996, the group was involved in an armed standoff with police that would last until June, as they refused to leave their property which was being foreclosed. 16Leonard Zeskind, “Montana Freemen Trial May Mark End of an Era,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/1998/montana-freemen-trial-may-mark-end-era; Danny Lewis, “Twenty Years Ago Today, the Montana Freemen Started Its 81-Day Standoff,” Smithsonian, March 25, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/twenty-years-ago-today-the-montana-freeman-started-its-81-day-standoff-180958568/.
December 2003In Abbeville, South Carolina, a sovereign citizen family had been disrupting surveying work being conducted on the road on which they lived. A sheriff’s deputy was sent out to assess the situation, and one of the family members shot and killed the officer. Over 200 law enforcement officials arrived at the scene, and a shootout ensued, with the standoff lasting over 12 hours before members of the family surrendered.17Michelle Theret, “Sovereign Citizens: A Homegrown Terrorist Threat and Its Negative Impact on South Carolina,” South Carolina Law Review: Vol. 63 : Iss. 4, Article 5, 2012, https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/sclr/vol63/iss4/5.
January 2003A sovereign citizen from Olympia, Washington was arrested on firearms charges after authorities received information that he was plotting to kill the Governor. According to the ADL’s reporting on the incident, “In 2004, [the man] pleaded guilty to weapons violations and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. [He] was a member of the Washington Jural Society, a sovereign citizen group, which elected [him] as “governor” of the state of Washington in 1998.”18ADL, “A Dark and Constant Rage,” p.18 https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/CR_5154_25YRS%20RightWing%20Terrorism_V5.pdf.
May 2010On May 20, 2010, a West Memphis, Arkansas police officer performed a traffic stop on a vehicle containing a father and son, both adherents of the sovereign citizen movement. An altercation ensued, and the son got out of the car and shot the officer with an AK-47, killing him. Another police officer was also shot and killed by the son. The father and son both fled the scene and were killed by police in another shootout at a Walmart a few hours later, after wounding two other officers.19Dan Harris, “Deadly Arkansas Shooting By ‘Sovereigns’ Jerry and Joe Kane Who Shun U.S. Law,” ABC News, July 1, 2010, https://abcnews.go.com/WN/deadly-arkansas-shooting-sovereign-citizens-jerry-kane-joseph/story?id=11065285.
March 2011A group that included militia members and sovereign citizens were arrested on firearms charges, in addition to conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder, in Fairbanks, Alaska.20‘Sovereign Citizen Arrested in Alaska for Alleged Plot to Kill Police, Federal Judge,” Talking Points Memo, March 11, 2011, https://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/sovereign-citizens-arrested-in-alaska-for-alleged-plot-to-kill-police-federal-judge. One of the men charged was reportedly a member of the “Second Amendment Task Force” and declared himself a sovereign citizen on multiple platforms. Another defendant, who had appeared at a Second Amendment March the prior year dressed in colonial costume and touting an AK-47, was the “major” of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, which court filings by the government described as a “sovereign citizens” group.21Cox v. US, Brief for the United States in Opposition to Writ of Certiorari, May 2018, https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-8074/46302/20180509152324909_17-8074%20Cox.pdf.
August 2012Local sheriff’s deputies were reportedly ambushed in a shootout by a group that included sovereign citizen adherents in LaPlace, Louisiana. The shooting left two officers dead, with two others seriously injured.22Alyssa Newcomb, “Suspects in Louisiana Cop Killings Linked to Sovereign Citizen Movement,” August, 19, 2012, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/alleged-louisiana-cop-shooters-linked-sovereign-citizen-movement/story?id=17038353.
April 2018On April 22, 2018, Travis Reinking carried out a mass shooting with an AR-15 at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, killing four and injuring two. He appeared on authorities’ radar a year earlier when he intentionally crossed a barrier on foot at the White House.23Dave Boucher, “Waffle House shooting: Suspect Travis Reinking previously fired because he was ‘paranoid,’” April 22, 2018, The Tennessean, https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/crime/2018/04/22/travis-reinking-nashville-waffle-house-shooting-suspect/540144002/. When officers stopped him at the White House, Reinking declared himself a sovereign citizen.24Adam Sommerstein, “Alleged Waffle House shooter displayed sovereign citizen beliefs”, Southern Poverty Law Center, April 23, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/04/23/alleged-waffle-house-shooter-displayed-sovereign-citizen-beliefs.
July 2021On July 3, 2021, an armed standoff occurred in Wakefield, Massachusetts between state police and 11 individuals who called themselves members of “The Rise of The Moors – The Moorish American Arms.” Police pulled over to their vehicles which were parked in the breakdown lane, only to notice that the passengers were in military gear and armed with several guns. The passengers claimed they were en route to training and allegedly refused to show their firearms licenses when asked. Ultimately, the standoff ended peacefully. Eight guns were seized in total, including “three AR-15 rifles, two pistols, a bolt-action rifle, a shotgun and a short barrel rifle,” according to a statement released by the local DA office and state authorities.
Additional In-Depth Resources on the Sovereign Citizens Movement
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