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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's look more deeply now into a headline from last month in Michigan. Federal authorities picked up members of a Christian militia group called the Hutaree. The group had put videos on YouTube showing members on patrol in the Michigan woods, stalking an unknown enemy. They were heavily armed, wore camouflage uniforms and face paint.

Prosecutors say nine members of the group were plotting to kill police. The story of the militia movement is a little more complicated than it might seem from that one case. Other militia groups are big on gun rights and very wary of Washington, but have grown less violent in recent years. NPR's Dina Temple Raston spent a day with a group of Southeast Michigan militia members as they trained.

Mr. MIKE LACKOMAR (Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia): What I carry is part of my battle gear, my level-one gear - is I have a FRS radio, LED flashlight...

DINA TEMPLE RASTON: On a recent Saturday, the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia gathered in the woods less than an hour from Detroit for one of their monthly training sessions. One of the men inventoried his gear.

Mr. LACKOMAR: Four magazines for my rifle, 30 rounds each; one Zanuck(ph) compass, a military-style knife, my 9 millimeter sidearm, two magazines for the 9 millimeter.

TEMPLE RASTON: There are a couple dozen men at the makeshift campsite, all with the same kind of gear, all dressed in camis. Mike Lackomar speaks for the group. He says people have got the modern militia movement all wrong.

Mr. MIKE LACKOMAR (Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia): The first thing that's always thrown at us is that we are a racist group. That's most definitely not the fact. The second one is that militias in general are paranoid, or prepared to fight if things don't go their way. And the truth of that matter is, the militia is a defensive organization and always needs to be structured that way.

Unidentified Man #1: Before you go over to the well...

Unidentified Man #2: ...going to be poison ivy...

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: I don't know. Regular vines you see out in the woods.

TEMPLE RASTON: Today's training has to do with compass reading, and building a fire.

(Soundbite of bow drill)

TEMPLE RASTON: That's the sound of a bow drill. It basically looks like the bow part of a bow and arrow. And along with a spindle, it's used to create enough friction to make a spark. The men are all leaning in, looking for a small ember where the spindle has been rubbing up against the wood.

JAIME (Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia): That's the ember right there that will catch a fire for you. You did it. Now you're in the 2 percenters. Only 2 percent of the population can make a bow drill fire.

Unidentified Man #5: Woo-hoo.

JAIME: You're a 2 percenter.

TEMPLE RASTON: The militias out here in Michigan weren't always so benign. Back in the 1990s, the movement here was driven by opposition to gun control and the IRS, as well as the outside possibility of overthrowing the government. The Michigan Regional Militia was seen as a paramilitary group just itching for a confrontation with law enforcement so they could spark a revolution. They called themselves patriot guerrillas.

Not anymore, according to Jack Kay. He's the provost and vice president of Eastern Michigan University, and he's been studying militias for decades.

Dr. JACK KAY (Provost and Vice President, Eastern Michigan University): Most of the folks that I talked to in the Michigan militia were very much distancing themselves. They were saying that - we don't have an agenda of overthrowing the government. We're simply concerned about our own protection, living off the land, survivalism, gun practice, those sorts of things.

TEMPLE RASTON: Which is why the Hutaree group, the heavily armed Christian militia arrested last month just outside of Adrian, Michigan, worried other militia members so much.

Mr. JIM GULLIKSEN (CEO, Lenawee Volunteer Michigan Militia): Yeah, I'm Jim Gulliksen from Adrian, Michigan, nice little small town that used to be off the map - and now is very much in the spotlight.

TEMPLE RASTON: Gulliksen hands me his card. It reads Lenawee Volunteer Michigan Militia: The Original Homeland Security. A former Navy corpsman now in charge of the paint and hardware section of a nearby Wal-Mart, he's the militia group's CEO.

Mr. GULLIKEN: I'm one of these people that was very anti-militia and all this. I thought they were a bad thing until my wife talked me into actually sitting and listening to my son explain what it was all about. And I learned a lot.

TEMPLE RASTON: As Gulliksen sees it, the militias in Michigan aren't out to destroy the government. They are out to maintain it. They can lend a hand to authorities. He said the group has a good relationship with the local sheriff.

Mr. GULLIKEN: I honestly feel that if there was an emergency like a natural disaster or a missing person, I don't think they'd have a problem calling on us to help. You know, if it was more of a law enforcement-type thing, rioting or something like that, he may be a little hesitant.

TEMPLE RASTON: In fact, a town supervisor in nearby Bridgewater, Michigan, has already called on the volunteer militias twice this year to help find missing people. The militias fanned out on foot and horseback. While the searches didn't end happily - in both cases, the missing person was found dead - it is an indication of how locals view their militias out here.

Now, this isn't to suggest that Gulliksen and the people who regularly show up to train with his militia are happy with the way things are in this country. They aren't.

Mr. GULLIKSEN: But we're not - violence is a very last resort. It's more, we want people to wake up, realize what's happening, how many of their liberties they are losing and...

TEMPLE RASTON: This is where in the past, the apocalyptic talk might have crept in.

Mr. GULLIKSEN: ...and get out to the ballot box and vote people in that are going to support the liberties and bring them back.

TEMPLE RASTON: Local militias are trying hard to change their image. Lenawee's militia has adopted part of a highway. They're trying to work with Habitat for Humanity, have collected coats for needy kids. That's a far cry from how the Hutaree militia, the group arrested last month, allegedly operated.

Mr. DAVID STONE (Leader, Hutaree Militia): In this nation, we think we are free, but you need a certificate to be born, a license to drive or permit to build, a number to get a job, and even a paper after you die.

TEMPLE RASTON: That's a portion of an FBI recording of Hutaree leader David Stone, obtained by NPR. This was taped secretly while Stone and other members of his group were driving to Kentucky for a militia rally. Stone was practicing a speech he planned to give there.

Mr. STONE: People in this nation, as well as some around this world, are waiting for those individuals, like you see sitting in this room - they're supposed to be down there - to actually make the decision to go to war against this evil, greedy new world order.

TEMPLE RASTON: Some of the Hutaree members used to train in the woods with other regional militias, militias like Mike Lackomar's group.

Unidentified Man #6: Stand by...

TEMPLE RASTON: Back in the woods, Lackomar walks over to his gear and begins to pack it up. He says the Hutarees were a little odd, training for ambushes, concealment, fire team movements - all the skills that might be needed in a firefight.

Mr. LACKOMAR: They trained at Level 10 all the time. They focused more on the military aspect than on the civil aspect, which we try to balance out.

TEMPLE RASTON: Lackomar said he wasn't surprised, especially, that the Hutaree were eventually arrested. He said that they were the old-style militia, bent on violence. And he's part of the new, helpful militia - the kind, he says, no one needs to be scared of.

Dina Temple Raston, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This report was part of an NPR investigation which also examined the Hutaree militia, whose members are accused of plotting to kill police. You can find that report, and see some of the militia members' bullet-riddled trailers, at npr.org.

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