Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to reestablish a World War II-era civilian military force that he, not the Pentagon, would control.
DeSantis pitched the idea Thursday as a way to further support the Florida National Guard during emergencies, like hurricanes. The Florida National Guard has also played a vital role during the pandemic in administering Covid-19 tests and distributing vaccines.
But in a nod to the growing tension between Republican states and the Biden administration over the National Guard, DeSantis also said this unit, called the Florida State Guard, would be “not encumbered by the federal government.” He said this force would give him “the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible.” DeSantis is proposing bringing it back with a volunteer force of 200 civilians, and he is seeking $3.5 million from the state legislature in startup costs to train and equip them.
States have the power to create defense forces separate from the national guard, though not all of them use it. If Florida moves ahead with DeSantis’ plan to reestablish the civilian force, it would become the 23rd active state guard in the country, DeSantis’ office said in a press release, joining California, Texas and New York. These guards are little-known auxiliary forces with origins dating back to the advent of state militias in the 18th century. While states and the Department of Defense share control of the National Guard, state guards are solely in the power of a governor.
The proposal from DeSantis comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s directive warning that National Guard members who refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will have their pay withheld and barred from training. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, had requested an exemption for guard members in his state, which Austin denied.
Democrats in Florida immediately expressed alarm at DeSantis’ announcement. US Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat to challenge the governor in 2022, tweeted, “No Governor should have his own handpicked secret police.”
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, another gubernatorial candidate, wrote on Twitter that DeSantis was a “wannabe dictator trying to make his move for his own vigilante militia like we’ve seen in Cuba.”
The Florida State Guard was created in 1941 during World War II as a temporary force to fill the void left behind when the Florida National Guard was deployed to assist in the US combat efforts. It was disbanded after the war ended, but the authority for a governor to establish a state defense force remained.
“Reestablishing the Florida State Guard will allow civilians from all over the state to be trained in the best emergency response techniques and have the ability to mobilize very, very quickly,” DeSantis said during a visit to Pensacola on Thursday.
State guards are typically deployed to respond during a disaster, though governors have found other reasons to call them into action.
In 2015, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott used the Texas state guard to monitor federal military exercises in his state, responding to what was at the time a fast-growing conspiracy theory that the federal government was using Walmart parking lots to prepare for a future state of martial law. Abbott said the guards were just collecting information to keep Texans safe during the multi-week exercises.
Florida law authorizes the governor to maintain a defense force as “necessary to assist the civil authorities in maintaining law and order,” meaning DeSantis would have another force to respond to unrest that may erupt in the future. DeSantis swiftly deployed the Florida National Guard to major cities after protests and violence broke out in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.
DeSantis has also stationed Florida National Guard troops at the Texas-Mexico border and sent them to Washington, DC, to help protect the US Capitol during the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The announcement on Thursday came during a broader rollout of DeSantis’ plan to bolster Florida’s National Guard, which included $100 million in funding proposals to establish three new armories, build a new headquarters for the National Guard Counter Drug Program and provide support for Florida National Guardsmen seeking higher-education degrees.