by Vin Suprynowicz
On July 1, a dozen citizens of Phoenix were arrested and charged with being members of the "Viper Militia." The next day, President Clinton stood on the White House lawn. saying. "I'd like to begin today by saluting the enforcement officers who made arrests in Arizona yesterday to avert a terrible terrorist attack." But as the indictments are made available to the public and more evidence about the Vipers' activities emerges, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Viper case is merely the government's latest assault on citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. No "terrorist attack," terrible or otherwise, was planned or even mentioned in the charges. In fact, as the indictments show, the Vipers' supposedly criminal acts consist merely of (a) the day's work of a "well-regulated militia," (b) petty tax violations, and (c) ownership of books, magazines, and insignia (shoulder patches) which are, of course, constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. Furthermore, whenever the indictment refers to a plan for a genuinely criminal act, it appears to have been instigated by ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) infiltrators and rejected by the membership.
To obtain an indictment on charges of conspiracy, prosecutors must prove to the grand jury that at least one member of the alleged conspiracy committed an "overt act" -- usually interpreted to mean either an outright felony or an-act unmistakably preparatory to committing a felony, such as planting explosives in a bank. But the "conspiracy," in this case, was not planning to blow up any particular building. It was a "Conspiracy to Furnish Instruction in the Use of Explosive Devices and Other Techniques in Furtherance of Civil Disorder," and "Furnishing Instruction In the Use of Explosive Devices and Other Techniques in Furtherance of Civil Disorder" (my emphases). "Instruction" in the use of weaponry is, of course, essential to a "well-regulated militia." But did the Vipers really intend to "further civil disorder"? Not as far as anyone can tell. A week after the arrests, U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll sent six of the suspects home, ruling they constituted no threat to their communities.
You couldn't say the same about the government agents who had infiltrated the organization. During the July 8 hearings that led to those releases, ATF supervisor Steven Ott admitted under oath that an ATF mole in the "Viper Team" had urged the other members to rob banks to further their cause. According to Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times, they all refused. Much of the government's case appears to hinge on creating the impression that the Vipers owned weaponry of a destructiveness that is ipso facto excessive for a militia -- an obviously implausible claim, at least in the case of the group's military rifles. The Phoenix indictment contends that the defendants "did knowingly and intentionally combine, conspire, confederate and agree together to teach and demonstrate to each other and other persons the use application, and making of firearms, explosive and incendiary devices, and techniques capable of causing injury and death." But to charge militiamen Dor anyone - with merely owning "firearms" seems odd. Every time your local NRA-affiliated shooting club holds a match, and the range supervisor walks down the line to recommend that one of the younger fellows wrap his sling around his arm to steady his rifle, he is "teaching and demonstrating a technique capable of causing injury and death." In fact, under the government's Director of Civilian Marksmanship program, any law-abiding American can sign up to shoot in a ""DCM"" match, with those who shoot adequately qualifying to buy a surplus military rifle, at cost, from the United States government. The main function of such a rifle is to "cause injury to persons."
Some could argue that the Viper arrests constitute exactly the kind of encroachment on our liberties that James Madison once declared should "provoke plans of resistance."
So when the Viper case goes to trial, the prosecution will probably focus on the "explosive and incendiary devices." The indictment charges that four of the "conspirators" met and viewed "a video tape" "for the purpose of training persons in the making and use of explosive devices for use in obstructing the federal government." The tape shows members detonating "multiple destructive devices which ultimately created a crater in open land approximately 6 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep. The exercise also included Dean Carl Pleasant discharging an unarmed M-16 type rifle grenade which travelled approximately 100 feet." The indictment additionally states that one member spoke of his attempts to develop a two-foot-long, PVC-pipe "rocket," fueled with black powder and capable of soaring up to 200 yards, apparently without any internal guidance system. Such charges sound great on the evening news, of course. But the Vipers' activities are clearly protected by the Second Amendment. The government agents themselves say that this rather ragtag bunch were just doing contingency planning for any future assault on our rights -- hardly a farfetched concern after what Americans have seen at Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Donald Scott's ranch. As a matter of fact, some could argue that the Viper arrests constitute exactly the kind of encroachment on our liberties that James Madison once declared should "provoke plans of resistance," that should be opposed by "a militia amounting to near half a million citizens with arms in their hands." In any event, the Vipers would seem to fall considerably short of that number -- news reports indicate that the group's leader talked so much about blowing things up that no other Arizona militia or Second Amendment group would have anything to do with him. His dwindling "Viper Team" had shrunk from 43 members a year ago to the twelve who were peacefully arrested this month. Did ATF decide it had better act before they were all gone?
In what may be the indictment's only valid charge, Viper Team member Gary Curds Bauer was accused of "knowingly and unlawfully possessing one (1) SKS type, 7.62 x 39mm caliber, full-automatic rifle, a machine gun as defined in Title 18, United States Code, section 921(a)(23)," etc. This small, fixed-magazine carbine became commonly available as military surplus during the 1960s, when Eastern Bloc countries replaced most of their stock with AK-47s. It is not illegal to possess one in the United States, even if it includes an extra little piece of metal that allows it to fire its ten rounds with one pull of the trigger, instead of ten pulls. (The same effect can be accomplished if you purposely break a few internal parts -- something the FBI is infamous for doing if it wants to "prove" a seized weapon was "capable of firing full-auto.") All the law says is that you're supposed to pay a $200 tax to possess such a rifle. which sells for $100 to $150 in its semi-automatic (untaxed) configuration -- cheaper than any handgun on the market, except for a few recycled Russian clunkers of equally antique vintage. Thus, the "Viper Militiai" is accused of owning (and failing to pay a $200 tax on) one, 30-years-out-of-date burp gun - a petty tax violation that scarcely amounts to a "terrorist" act. Indeed, since the seizure reports list several other "machine guns" and "silencers" that do not appear to have brought indictments as separate crimes, one can't help wondering whether most of the firearms possessed by this tiny "militia" weren't completely legal, with even the $200 tax paid. The charge against Bauer may amount to a mere bookkeeping error. Also seized in the federal raids were "one bag of Viper Militia patches" (sic) the patches did not include the word "militia"), "three magazines," "two books" (including Homemade C-4 for Survival), and "books on silencers, bomb recipes," and the like. So now we're down to seizing books readily available through the mail from publishers who advertise openly in national magazines. In the pre-Civil War South, it was against the law to teach a slave to read. Who are the slaves now?
The Security of a Free State
Four of the Viper defendants are registered Libertarians, and some of the perhaps more paranoid members of the Libertarian Party have speculated that they were busted just in time to throw a cloud over the party's July 4-7 national convention. Maybe. But it seems more likely that the much-touted Libertarian connection is the work of reporters eager to marginalize the party and portray it as a menace. After all, seven of those arrested in Phoenix were registered Republicans, yet no reporter that I know of called the Arizona GOP to ask if they were ashamed to be attracting such dangerous radicals. Virtually every LP official in Arizona seems to have been asked that question.
Some of the perhaps more paranoid members of the Libertarian Party have speculated that they were busted just in time to throw a cloud over the party's July 4-7 national convention.
If the authorities' goal really was to protect the Vipers' neighbors, as opposed to staging some media-event arrests, why didn't they approach the group openly, offering them a safer place to test and store their munitions, rather than sit by and watch them do dangerous things for two years while ATF tried to "build a case"? Or, if the offer failed, why not simply issue a more sensible state or county citation for "reckless endangerment"? But the Vipers have done nothing wrong.
The best hope of peace and liberty now lies with the fully-informed juries of Arizona, who I trust will laugh out of court the notion that citizens who have done no harm, no matter how incautious their talk, should be jailed for "watching videotapes" of their friends blowing up sand dunes in the desert.
This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Liberty Magazine. (c) The author, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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