LEXINGTON, Ky. – Armed militia members may have been more visible in Kentucky in recent months, but their presence is nearly as old as the Commonwealth itself. 

What You Need To Know

  • Kentucky has a long history of active militia groups

  • Three Percenters and Oath Keepers are prominent in the Commonwealth

  • All 50 states have laws prohibiting militias

  • Groups have experienced growth under President Trump

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project in 2019 identified 576 active anti-government extremist groups in the United States, of which 181 were defined as militias – a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. 

The SPLC identifies eight anti-government groups in Kentucky, including two militias, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers; the groups are vehemently opposed to being labeled as anti-government extremists, domestic terrorists, or white supremacists, according to their websites.  

Militia members in Kentucky, an open-carry state regarding firearms, became more visible over the past year when hundreds showed up in Louisville and other cities to counter Black Lives Matter and other groups protesting the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

The groups are often called “right-wing” militias because of their paramilitary traditions, historical anti-government stance, and the tendency to be energized by conspiracy theories. Militia groups generally oppose what they call the “New World Order” – a conspiracy theory that hypothesizes a secretly emerging totalitarian world government – and most militias do not advocate or engage in violence. 

Although many right-wing groups have gravitated toward white nationalist themes, most groups are not racist, according to the SPLC. 

As the flags displayed in public and their websites show, militia members strongly support President Donald Trump. Although historically and currently considered anti-government, the “Patriot” movement that began when Trump was elected and has continued during his term in office has many groups on the same side as the federal government in terms of the Trump Administration’s policy. This is particularly true concerning immigration and propagating the “deep state” conspiracy, which suggests collusion and cronyism exist within the U.S. political system and constitute a hidden government within the legitimately elected one. Other issues where there is common ground include pandemic restrictions, gun control, and Black Lives Matter protests.

Alex Friedfeld, Investigative Researcher at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, said the militia movement, especially under the Trump Administration, has shifted to redefine its priorities.

“The classic militia movement is primarily anti-government, right? They hate the government,” Friedfeld said. “The modern movement was born in the wake of Waco and Ruby Ridge – incidents where they were willing to execute those that oppose them – so you have these kind of conspiracies that come up with a New World Order, all these types of things that have oriented people to believe the government is not benevolent but is actually a tyrant wearing a nice face.” 

Friedfeld said the militia movement has a history of ebbs and flows – a rise in the 1990s, a decline during the Bush Administration in the 2000s and a rise again during the Obama years. He said what he finds interesting during the Trump years is a “re-orientation.” 

“These guys actually supported President Trump when he was still just a candidate, and they had never been in that position before,” he said. “They have always skewed more conservative, obviously, but they kind of treated Republicans as being just part of the same game; still part of this New World Order system. Even though they were more inclined to agree with a Bush conservative, a Bush Republican, they weren’t super enthusiastic about them. All of a sudden, President Trump comes along, and he’s saying all these things about particular issues of immigration and kind of pandering to that more racist side of things and spouting conspiracies. They believe all this sort of stuff and they find themselves in this weird position of what do you do if you're an anti-government organization that all of a sudden supports the guy at the head of the government? It’s a weird position to be in.” 

The modern militia movement was formed in the mid-1990s, primarily in reaction to federal gun control measures and deadly standoffs between civilians and federal agents. The movement suffered a serious decline in the early 2000s but experienced a major resurgence beginning with the Obama Administration in 2008 that attracted thousands of new, often young, recruits. It has continued being active in the years since but has experienced an overall decline in participation. The website My Militia is an active database for militia groups across the country to recruit new members.

The Three Percenters

There are three main pillars of belief with regard to militias, Friedfeld said. They believe the government is a tyrannical enterprise; they are staunchly pro gun because the Second Amendment is what allows the people to defend all the other amendments; and they do not like the left, writing them off as socialists, communists, and anti-capitalist. 

“For the majority of their young history, being anti-tyranny and anti-government has kind of played a big role,” Friedfeld said. “But we started to see this kind of reorientation when President Trump came to power in that there was a shift away from opposing the federal government and one of the ways they kind of got around that was they shifted the focus toward state governments and started calling people like Gov. Beshear Nazis, tyrants, and every internet slur you can think of to insult someone you don’t like.” 

Militias in Kentucky being more visible in 2020 is the result of a rise in the groups’ anti-left sentiment and a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of the Breonna Taylor shooting in Louisville, which made the city what Friedfeld called a “political hotspot.”

“Militia groups saw those protesters and thought they needed to ‘defend America,’ so they started showing up in droves,” Freidfeld said. “They were already active leading up to that in terms of protesting the lockdown measures.” 

Perhaps the most well-known militia group in the country and in Kentucky is The Three Percenters, named for the historical claim that only 3% of American colonists fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. Three Percenters believe ordinary citizens must “take a stand against perceived abuses by the U.S. federal government,” which they characterize as overstepping its Constitutional limits. Its stated goals include protecting the right to keep and bear arms, and to “push back against tyranny.” There are about 40 groups of Three Percenters in Kentucky, according to the Sons of Liberty Three Percenters KY/IN

The website for The Three Percenters chapter in Kentucky states the group is seeking members who believe in the U.S. Constitution regardless of one’s race or sexual orientation. The group denounces the media and SPLC’s labeling it domestic terrorists, right-wing terrorists, or even anti-government. 

“The Three Percenters are anything but anti-government; actually, they believe in and support the fact that we have an established government in this country,” according to the website. “True Three Percenters are law-abiding citizens who believe in the Constitution and the unalienable rights of man, just as the original Three Percenters that fought the British in the Revolutionary War. They believe anyone who is sworn into their office, occupation, or position by swearing an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, should honor this for life.”

The website also rejects being portrayed as “gun nuts” or people of violence, but says they do believe in the Second Amendment and will stand against any form of tyranny, gun confiscation, any form of unconstitutional or unlawful acts of force by governments, or “laws that impose on these rights.” The website claims Three Percenters are “ordinary, everyday people” that do not wish for or provoke war, but they do say if war comes, “it will be welcomed.”

“Three Percenters are not violent, unruly, anti-government extremists,” according to the website. “They are your neighbor and your friend.”

Armed protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion this past May demanding Gov. Andy Beshear resign after he imposed restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Terry Bush, president of the Kentucky Three Percenters, was photographed hanging an effigy of Beshear from a tree outside the Capitol building during the protest, which drew sharp criticism from the governor.  

“These groups are not freedom fighters,” Beshear said. “They are terrorists. They’re not security forces. They are threats to our nation. So this nation and every single one of its leaders, including everyone here in Kentucky, must in one voice denounce all of these groups. Domestic terrorism is about violence and intimidation, pure and simple. There are no two sides to it.”

Oath Keepers

The Oath Keepers militia has a strong presence in the Commonwealth, and its members were prevalent at the protests in Louisville. The group describes itself as a non-partisan association of current and former military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath that all military and police take to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 

Oath Keepers encourages its members not to obey orders they believe would violate the U.S. Constitution, such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as “enemy combatants” in violation of their ancient right to a jury trial. 

The organization claims a membership of more than 40,000 nationwide. Members of Oath Keepers also provided security for Trump supporters at a November 4, 2019, rally in Lexington.

With the motto, “Not On Our Watch,” Oath Keepers has members from all races and backgrounds, according to its website.

Laws on the books

While many militia members attend protests such as the ones in Louisville claiming to “provide security” or “protect property,” Kentucky law prohibits private, unauthorized militias and military units from engaging in activities reserved for the state militia, including law enforcement activities. The Kentucky Constitution forbids private military units from operating outside state authority, providing that “the military shall, in all cases and at all times, be in strict subordination to the civil power.” Kentucky Revised Statute 38.440 makes it illegal for groups of people to

organize as private militias without permission from the state: “No persons other than the Kentucky National Guard or Kentucky active militia shall associate together as an armed company or drill or parade with arms without permission from the Governor.”

Identifying the groups

A recent article in The New York Times detailed whether using the word militia to describe such groups is accurate. The article mentions the instance when FBI Special Agent Richard J. Trask II took the witness stand in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past October to testify about a plot to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. 

The prosecutor first asked Trask what the men involved had in common, and Trask said they were all from “multiple militias from different states.” Prosecutor Nils R. Kessler paused on the word “militia,” noting it means different things to different people. 

“These are groups that call themselves militias?” he asked, “But they are not under any government authority or anything like that?”

“That’s correct,” Trask responded.

The term “militia” now encompasses a broader spectrum, representing everything from armed neighborhood watch organizations to the Not F***ing Around Coalition (NFAC), an all-Black paramilitary group that marches to protest police violence, according to the article.

All 50 states have laws against private militias, which means any group that calls itself a militia is operating illegally. Most paramilitary groups, including those in Kentucky, do not refer to themselves as militias on their official websites. 

“The use of the word ‘militia,’ any time you are talking about anything other than a state militia like the National Guard, it is just wrong,” Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official now running an institute specializing in constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center said in the Times article. “Using that term without putting ‘unlawful’ in front of it suggests that there is some legitimacy or even constitutional authority for their existence, which there isn’t,” she said.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh teaches First Amendment law and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. He said armed militia-type groups cannot legally “associate together as an armed company,” but it’s not clear how far that goes – among other things, lots of businesses have armed guards, either of their own or hiring them out to others, and volunteer armed guards seem likely to be just as permissible.  

“Rich people get to have armed bodyguards; upper-middle-class people get to have armed private security patrols; people of more modest means might want to gather on a volunteer basis to defend each other and their neighbors,” Volokh said. “Naturally, they also can’t associate together in order to commit other crimes, such as assaulting or threatening innocent people – that would just be a conspiracy to commit a crime. Nor would they have law enforcement powers, other than the ordinary rights of citizen’s arrest, to the extent that Kentucky law allows it to citizens generally. On the other hand, gathering to defend businesses during a riot would normally be the legal defense of others, a close analog of self-defense.”

Volokh said he expects one or another form of this is going to become even more popular to the extent that attempts to “defund the police” actually take place, or to the extent that police in practice stand back during riots, on the theory, whether correct, that actively protecting residents will just make matters worse.  

“People need protection,” he said. They’ll get it somewhere, whether provided by themselves, by outright criminals such as gangs and the like, or by private organizations, paid or otherwise.”

Kentucky has a long and storied history with regard to militias. An article by Blake Stillwell on the website We Are The Mighty touches on the history of the Kentucky militias and details why it was the most feared by America’s enemies during the War of 1812.

“The one thing the British didn’t want was to face the militias from Kentucky. Those guys were maniacs,” Stillwell wrote. “Kentucky, being on the American frontier at the time, had no fortifications and didn’t have to defend any structures, so its militiamen spent much of their time fighting the enemy wherever they were to be found. Being on the frontier, they spent a lot of time fighting the British Army’s Indian allies. The Indians were really good at taking the scalps of their enemies, a story the U.S. government used as propaganda. The British tried to get the Indian tribes to cool it with the scalping, but it was too late. The story spread, and the Americans soon had their own savage band: Kentuckians.”

The men from Kentucky were reported to have fought almost naked when weather permitted, painting themselves with red all over their body, sometimes carrying only a blanket and a knife with which to “take their own enemy scalps,” Stillwell wrote. When the British sent Indian Tribes into the Michigan territory, Gen. William Hull, commander of the Michigan forces and governor of the territory, threatened to send Kentucky troops into Canada as a response.

“And they did invade Ontario,” Stillwell said. “The redcoats weren’t thrilled to be fighting the Kentuckians, either. When Redcoats found their pickets and sentries dead and scalped in the mornings, they knew there were Kentucky men in the area, and it made them uneasy. But Kentucky men were not invincible. The Kentuckians took more casualties than all the other state militias combined, fighting in every neighboring state and territory as well as helping the defense of New Orleans while supplying the U.S. with saltpeter.”

Tracking their activity

Militia groups have gotten more active and more vocal in recent weeks because of potential unrest related to the 2020 election. The website of the organization Militia Watch tracks political violence and protests. Militia Watch cites the Louisville protests and a presence at a small rally in Grayson, Kentucky, as recent activities participated in by the Three Percenters Security Force and the NFAC.

The prevalence of extremist rhetoric has also contributed to militia groups and others feeling more emboldened to have a presence and a voice during unrest, Friedfeld said. 

“It’s super-easy for people to get steeped in the rhetoric – to read it day in and day out – especially as it has become more mainstream,” Friedfeld said. “There are people that may never officially join a militia or link up with anyone in any way, but they are steeped in the rhetoric and constantly consuming it. People are being told there are problems in this country and the only way to deal with it is through violence. That's how you end up with people at these rallies and stuff holding up signs decrying tyrants and with other slogans that have classic anti-government sentiment, but it's no longer militia members only, it’s seemingly ordinary Americans talking in these slogans and using this jargon.”

This article has been updated to include statements from UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and Alex Friedfeld, Investigative Researcher at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism.