GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When it comes to explaining what drives militia groups, Vanderbilt University Senior Lecturer Amy Cooter has become an expert.

“I’ve talked to these folks. I go to their meetings and trainings to really understand why it is they do what they do,” said Cooter during a Zoom interview. “And I’ve had a special focus on groups in Michigan.”

Cooter says Michigan is a case study.

“Michigan has always had a strong history with them. They were one of the first states to have a formal modern militia movement,” said Cooter, which has created some interesting dynamics. “Where emerging militias, not just in Michigan, but in other states actually look to them as a model of how to do public relations or how to conduct training for other things.”

That history goes back to the mid-1990s.

The year before they carried out of the Oklahoma City bombing, Terry Nichols, then a Michigan resident and Timothy McVeigh, attended a Michigan Militia meeting.

Over the years, police and prosecutors have kept a close watch on the groups.

Sometimes with limited success.

Take the Hutaree Militia.

In 2010, several members from Michigan and neighboring states were charged with plotting a violent revolt involving the murder of police officers and civilians.

But a federal judge eventually released the group on the most serious charges, basically saying the group couldn’t pull off the plan in the first place.

“I’m already seeing hints that might be part of the defense in this case too, where there were questions about how serious this would have been,” Cooter said.

Despite their rhetoric and their heavily armed presence at anti-government rallies and other protests, Cooter says her research has shown 90% of militias members are non-violent.

“They are law-abiding citizens, many of whom kind of view this as a hobby, but also do think that it is their personal responsibility to be prepared to defend themselves their families, their communities,” Cooter said.

Of course, these are not normal times, creating concerns over the other 10%.

“People are upset about a variety of different things,” Cooter said. “So, it is important for them to be watchful and not just dismiss it.”