COLUMBUS — Ohio has the second-highest number of active extremist anti-government groups in the U.S., according to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center Monday.
The SPLC report, which says the groups pose a threat to national security, identified 31 active anti-government groups in the state in 2020. The report identified 566 in all 50 states.
The report also found close to 170 of the groups are militias. In Ohio, 17 anti-government groups were considered militias.
News 5 spoke to two experts on violent political extremism who each said they were not surprised Ohio was so close to the top of the SPLC's list.
Karl Kaltenhaler, a political science professor and director of Security Studies at the University of Akron, said, "Ohio has been one of the leading states for the militia movement, the broader anti-government movement, in the United States for decades now."
Kaltenhaler said the militia movement surged in the U.S. in the 1990s, but especially in Ohio.
"Ohio was a very receptive place for that movement," he said. "There was a lot of growth, both in terms of groups, but also in terms of number of people who joined groups."
Kaltenhaler said rural poverty in Ohio creates fertile ground for groups who blame the government or government conspiracies for challenging economic conditions.
"It is certainly true Ohio has had a long and rich history of anti-government extremism," said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League's Center for Extremism. Pitcavage said he has tracked right-wing extremists for 26 years.
COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election all meant the groups were more publicly active in 2020.
"There were all these different things throughout the past year that gave them an excuse to come out into the public square and march around with AR-15s and camouflage and everything else they have," Pitcavage said.
The report said Ohio anti-government groups are not necessarily violent or racist. Instead, they believe in "groundless conspiracy theories."
Kaltenhaler also said the "vast majority" of people who belong to the groups are not violent.
However, Pitcavage and Kaltenhaler said the groups are still dangerous. They said members are often heavily armed and use rhetoric that promotes and encourages violence among members.
"When you put those things together and you think about how this movement views the current political situation in the United States, it’s very much a recipe for potential violent acts," Kaltenhaler said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked hate and extremism in the U.S. since 1971.