A few state lawmakers made national headlines recently by backing suggestions from tea party protesters that the state could establish a militia to defend against encroachments by the federal government.
Those behind the idea later backtracked, saying they favored reinstituting a volunteer state guard which would be under the direction of the governor and the Legislature and would aid the Oklahoma National Guard in case of emergencies.
Such an organization once existed. But Mike Gonzales, curator of the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma City, said those calling for a militia like the one envisioned by the founding fathers don’t understand their history.
"It died in the 19th century,” Gonzales said. "It is archaic. It would be as if some congressman suggested we form legions like they had in Rome. We settle political disputes at the ballot box, not at the muzzle of a gun.”
Gonzales said militias began because America had no standing army. They were most famously called on during the American Revolution to overturn an unelected government and its army, which was seen by many colonists as an occupying force.
It is important to understand that warfare was different then, Gonzales said. Militias were an alternative to a standing national army, not an opposing force to keep a national army in line.
"They were thinking in 18th century terms,” Gonzales said. "That was nothing more than an armed populace. That was still the thinking through the 19th century.”
Concepts of a citizen militia taking on the federal government are "in the realm of fantasy,” Gonzales said.
"We live in a world with jet aircraft that fly Mach 3,” Gonzales said. "We have tanks that are just this side of invulnerable and never miss. In World War II, you could have fielded a squad of soldiers for the cost of what it takes to equip a single soldier today.”
The territorial government in 1890 authorized an official militia. Although its organization was spelled out in detail, no money was provided for for the organization.
"Like-minded citizens got together and organized units,” Gonzales said. "They were expected to bring their own uniforms, their own weapons, their own horses and their own food.”
Five years later, the militia was re-organized into the Oklahoma National Guard. This followed a national trend through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gonzales said.
"When the federal government started seeing the National Guard as a reserve for the national defense, federal money started flowing into it,” he said. "The militia started to be seen more as veterans’ organizations.”
Oklahoma lawmakers authorized a volunteer militia called the Oklahoma State Guard in the 1940s, but it was never activated until then-Gov. David Walters did so in 1991.
Walters said the group was never meant to be a military organization.
"The intent was to provide private support to Guard members and their families in time of need, similar to other military and law enforcement support organizations,” Walters said.