March 30, 2010 — -- They are not police officers. They are not active-duty soldiers. But what a group of weekend warriors is doing with guns in the woods not far from the Canadian border is perfectly legal.
"Nightline" visited a recent Saturday training session of the 21st Battalion of North Idaho's Lightfoot Militia -- a heavily armed force that, we're told, numbers more than 100. Just about a dozen showed up on the Saturday we did.
Along with an awful lot of shooting, they learn survival skills and take first-aid lessons from one of their members, who's also a firefighter.
Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET
Their leader is "Major" Jeff Stankiewicz, an unemployed welder with zero military experience.
"The government should be afraid of its people so that it doesn't do stuff it's not supposed to do," Stankiewicz told "Nightline." "It would make them think twice."
Randall Klein is one of the newest members of the militia. He joined about a month ago after losing his job.
We asked Klein what he's worried about.
"It's not about Barack Obama, but certainly he's gotten me worried and not just him... Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the rest," said Klein. "I mean, obviously to me, they want to become dictators of the United States. I think that's why they are going on this health care kick and probably trying to bankrupt the country, so they can do their socialist totalitarian dictatorship."
These men -- and a few women -- are the new faces of this country's militia movement. Their numbers have exploded in the past year. Some chalk it up to the recession. Others say the surge in militias is largely because of the election of the first black president.
Those who track militias say they all but disappeared over the last decade. The militias of the 1990s were inspired by the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which federal agents shot and killed the wife of white supremacist Randy Weaver; and by the government's 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which 80 people were killed, including 20 children.
Timothy McVeigh said both events inspired his 1995 attack on the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed. McVeigh's co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, was a member of a Michigan militia.
Militia: 'Second Amendment Issues'
The militias of today still fear their government. But they worry more about a federal takeover of the health care system or the collapse of the economy than about black helicopters and armed agents. We sat down with a few members of the Idaho militia to try to understand their motivations.
"I started off handing out flyers to get our first meeting going," said Stankiewicz. "It was a year ago. It was April 15th, at the first Tea Party rallies. ... Now's the time to start coming together, and I thought, well, if this isn't a good time then there isn't one, and if we don't start preparing now it might be too late. You never what's coming around the corner."
These men do at least share one value with the militiamen of the past: belief in the right to bear arms.
"Second amendment issues," said Stankiewicz. "I believe that's the most important of the amendments. The Soviet constitution had the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of the press. They didn't have the right to bear arms."
Even though the group is based just miles from Ruby Ridge, in a part of the country known for white supremacy, members said bigotry is not part of their ideology.
"In a constitutional militia, what we are, racism has no place," said a militia member named Willard who, like many we spoke with, did not want his last name used.
Stankiewicz echoed the sentiment.
"I've even had people ask me about Muslims joining the group," he said. "I said I would have no problem with Muslims joining the group."
Klein seemed uneasy with the idea.
"Jeff was talking about letting Muslims in, and that would be OK in theory, but a couple of us voiced a concern that we don't want to get shot in the back, like what happened in Ft. Hood," Klein said.
A Web site maintained by the militia says men should be the head of the household. "Nightline" asked Stankiewicz to respond to concerns women might have about that.
"Do you mean are women second-class citizens?" Stankiewicz said. "No. God no. It doesn't matter if it's a household or a corporation or a football team or whatever it is... you have to have at least one person who makes the final decision.
Stankiewicz said in his world that person is a man.
"You are equals but the man is the head of the household," he said. "It's my Christian background."
Militia and Local Law Enforcement
The militia says it does not advocate violence against the government or its employees. Members disavow groups like the Hutaree militia, whose members were arrested this week and accused of plotting to kill police officers.
But the lines can be blurry. Hutaree's Web site lists only four links. One is to the site kept by the Lightfoot Militia.
Local law enforcement officials say the Lightfoot Militia seems to be doing everything above board, however. Militia members have met with the county sheriff's department.
"As long as they adhere to the constitution of Idaho and adhere to the laws, we don't have a problem with them organizing," said Robert Bussey, undersheriff of Bonner County, Idaho. "It's just like any group. If you or I form a stamp collecting club under the constitution, the only time law enforcement would be concerned if you were planning criminal activity or carrying out criminal activity."
But the "real" authorities were quick to say they would not be calling on the militia in an emergency.
"We want to make sure we know the people that are coming to our crisis, so we do our background checks," Bussey said. "This militia, we do not know them, their training levels or what their abilities are, so we would not call them."
Stankiewicz founded the militia just a year ago. Since then he has been busy trying to convince the community not to fear the militia. He teaches kids in the local band and marches in parades. Militia members even act as crossing guards at local events. On our way to that Saturday training in the woods, Stankiewicz explained why.
"Everyone in the country, if you ask them about the militia, it's a bunch of gun-toting drunken rednecks who run around the woods shooting at anything that moves," he said. "And that's not who these guys are. They have jobs, they own businesses, we've got firemen. We've got all sorts. These are not crazy people. These are average, everyday guys."
But, as we said, most we talked to -- including Stankiewicz -- don't have a job. The largest industry in the region, logging, has been hurt badly in recent years, and unemployment here hovers near 20 percent. And yes, most do take unemployment from the state. They argue it's insurance... not welfare.
"If you want to have free health care and you want to have gay marriage and you want to have whatever -- any welfare programs... line them up in your state," Stankiewicz said. "The states were supposed to be different. The federal government was there just for national defense and foreign relations. That was pretty much it. That way I can live in a state that believes -- and live around people that believe -- the same sort of things I believe. And liberals, if they want to live in another state, all around people who believe what they believe."
Militia: 'Less Freedom'
In fact a current candidate for governor of Idaho, Rex Rammell, a Republican, is running on the platform of supporting a statewide militia.
"I don't think anyone would argue that America is getting more and more enemies all of the time -- both foreign and domestic," said Rammell. "I think the way politics is going in the United States and the Tea Party movement -- the whole atmosphere promotes people wanting to get prepared. And I think that is what this is about."
Rammell raised eyebrows last year when he joked he'd like to a buy a license to hunt President Obama. When Rammell ran for Senate in 2008 he got a measly 5 percent of the vote. This year, he says, things have changed.
"It's because of the current administration's politics -- the more they force upon the states, the more noise there is," Rammell said. "The more concern people have, the less freedom there is. Lots of Idahoans believe the health care bill is very intrusive on our individual rights. ... We are not going to allow them to come into the state and make what we believe are unconstitutional mandates. Even if they can get them passed in D.C., we are not going to all that to happen. These guys want to show a little force behind the scene... I don't have a problem with that."
Stankiewicz said he wasn't looking for a showdown.
"I keep telling the guys, I don't know how many times I've said it at the meetings," he said. "I'll be happy to be an old man with some really nice hunting and camping gear and have nothing happen. That would be the best."