Preparing for Martial Law: Everything You Need to Know

The takeover of civilian power by military officials, otherwise known as Martial Law, has been thrown around repeatedly over the last few years, almost as a threat by the media that America as we know it is about to be changed forever.

We’d be lying if it was not something to be taken seriously, especially with continued rising tensions over the election, race relations, and corruption, yet a federal takeover of America may be further away than you think.

While many argue a declaration of martial law is enough to completely change the face of America, let’s cut through the bureaucracy and doomsday talk to understand exactly what martial law is and how you should respond.

What is Martial Law?

Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of Martial Law in passing, whether from our everyday news or even movies such as Total Recall, but coming up with an exact definition is difficult as the constitution is vague at best.

Although it may be impossible to come up with a fixed definition, Martial Law can generally be seen as a suspension of civil law by the military to enforce temporary regulations in an attempt to restore order and prevent civil unrest from reigning.

Over time, limits have been placed on power afforded under Martial Law.

One example of these restrictions occurred in 1878, which now requires congressional approval under the Posse Comitatus Act before Martial Law can be declared, yet even with these limitations, the power offered by Martial Law is immense with severe consequences for those affected.

Why Would the Government Enact Martial Law?

For the President or a Governor to declare Martial Law, it is often done with the intention to protect society from civil unrest, domestic and international threats, and even natural disasters. 

To truly understand the times at which Martial Law may be declared, let’s look at three historical examples to see exactly why power may be handed over to the military.

1871 – Great Chicago Fire

Starting on October 8, 1871, The Great Chicago Fire lasted for over two days, burning much of central Chicago to rubble with over 300 people killed and the livelihood of an estimated 90,000 people destroyed.

As so many people were forced out of their homes, and arguably angry at the poor building codes that contributed to the fire, fears of potential violence flooded the city leading to Martial Law being declared shortly after the fire started.

In total, the city was under the control of General Sheridan and his men for a total of two weeks before being handed back over to elected officials and allowing the repair of a great city to begin.

1934 – West Coast Waterfront Strike

Shortly after World War One, tensions began rising between Longshoremen and their company union leading to a series of failed strikes all culminating in the events that took place during 1934.

While the Roosevelt administration attempted to broker a deal and new workers were brought in to minimize the impact of a strike, tensions continued to rise leading to repeated outbreaks of violence and several deaths.

In response to this, a state of emergency was declared as 3000 members of the National Guard were brought in the hopes of preventing the violence from spreading and to regain control of the situation.

Although violence had peaked several times during the protest, the protests had ultimately dissolved by the 19th of July and peace was eventually restored to the region with the removal of any military presence shortly after.

1941 – Pearl Harbor

The events of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by Imperial Japan, shook America and within hours led to a declaration of Martial Law in fear of subsequent attacks. 

While other examples of Martial law only lasted for a brief period of time or were kept to a very limited region, the military takeover of Hawaii is notable both because of its duration and scope, with the entire state being placed under the control of General Walter Short.

For just under three years, the population of Hawaii remained under some form of Martial Law largely because of the population being made up of almost 37% of Japanese residents. 

Although legal battles had been made to end Martial Law in the state, it was not until after the war that finally allowed control to be placed back into the hands of the people.

Why Martial Law in 2021?

Given the precedented history of Martial Law, it’s easy to see how it may be declared given the current state of America but three primary arguments have been put forward as the media attempts to push for the ever growing need for Martial Law.

It’s important to note that although these three scenarios could theoretically be used as justification for Martial Law, such a declaration truly is worst case scenario and it’s likely any administration would likely go to great depths to avoid such an action at all costs.

Let’s break down each argument to see how they could lead to a declaration of Martial Law before looking at how you may respond to such a scenario.


State lockdowns as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic were a defining point of 2020 and as it seems to be hanging around, it’s unlikely this year will be any different. 

The difference this time with impending lockdowns is that a growing amount of resentment towards the establishment, and what many are starting to call COVID Fatigue, is making it more and more unlikely people will go into another lockdown willingly.

As cases of coronavirus continue to rise across the world, a federal lockdown may be on the cards of President Biden but with enough pushback from the public, its entirely possible military assets could be deployed.

Exactly how this would play out is impossible to predict, but for calls to set up COVID isolation camps and a history of using ankle monitors to stop people from leaving their homes, it’s easy to imagine a federal lockdown with severe restrictions to civil liberties. 

Civil Unrest

From race relations to political beliefs, civil unrest has permeated the last several years of our nations history with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Almost every protest appears to be met with an equally animated counter-protest, resulting in greater levels of violence, property damage, and ever rising tensions.

If things continue to get worse, it may not be too unlikely that martial law is declared to regain control of the states, or specific areas, and prevent any further violence from erupting.

We’re already seeing the first signs of this with several cities declaring a state of emergency to bring in National Guard soldiers in order to assist local law enforcement. A full hand over of cities to military authorities should things ever become too chaotic, is entirely possible.

Presidential Maintenance of Power

Finally, we’ve heard much speculation of President Trump enacting Martial Law to prevent a transition of power.

While it’s obvious this did not happen, it’s also likely it was never on the table and just used to scare people or heighten tensions between political parties.

For this plan to work in the first place, a President would need the full support of both the military and almost every branch of the government to essentially install their own authoritative regime.

Obviously, with the amount of divisiveness during the Trump presidency, it’s likely this subversion of democracy was highly unlikely, no matter how many people warned about the dangers of Martial Law.

What Restrictions Can Martial Law Bring?

The constitution offers very little guidance regarding exactly what Martial Law should look like beyond the areas of civilian life the military may take over.

As a result of this wide scope within the constitution, it is almost impossible to precisely say the restrictions that may be put in place to control the population.

Some examples that we could see in the event of Martial Law being declared may include:

Although these restrictions differ in their severity, they all serve the same general purpose, which is to “pacify” the public and make it much easier to restore order to a region.

As America experienced during the attack on Pearl Harbor, these restrictions are always prone to be updated and changed with little to no warning. So, it’s crucial to stay updated with all of the facts from as many sources as you can possibly get.

The Importance of Preparedness

Legally, as long as a governor or president has congressional approval, there is very little to stop an acting government official from declaring Martial Law at a moment’s notice. 

As curfews are almost inevitable with any type of Martial Law, and with the risk of mass panic or violence, it is unlikely you will be able make it to the store in time to stock up on essentials.

When paired with a huge range of other potential restrictions, it means there would likely be very little time to ready yourself for lockdowns, meaning preparing before any official declaration is critical. 

Having supplies at home keeps you away from the chaos and more importantly allows you to stay safe during times of unrest.

How to Prepare for Martial Law?

As with all other emergency scenarios, it is often recommended to have a two-week (minimum) supply of the essentials, including:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Medicine
  • Gas
  • Batteries

FEMA offers a more comprehensive list of supplies, but at the very least these items should be enough to get you through two weeks without the need to ever leave your home no matter what the scenario.

Additionally, beyond the supplies stored to keep up you safe for the first two weeks of any unrest, it’s always worth storing a bug out bag within your supplies. 

Although bug out bags should ideally be built to only last 72-hours (for most scenarios), the inclusion of items such as respirators, tools, and duplicates of your essential documents during uncertain times can prove critical when the worst happens.

As we’ve seen, it’s not uncommon for Martial Law to be enacted during events that may force us from our homes. 

Having a bag ready to leave the house at a moments notice can be critical should an evacuation order be put in place in the middle of a crisis.

Should You Bug Out During Martial Law?

Spend anytime online and it’s not uncommon to find people claiming that the moment Martial Law is declared they’d be heading off to bug out location in the woods until everything blows over.

It makes sense where these ideas come from, especially as the concept of even being temporarily governed by unelected officials goes directly against most American values.

Yet even with that said, it’s not recommended to bug out during these situations for a huge range of reasons.

Most importantly, bugging out will often leave us exposed outside of curfew hours resulting in very real legal complications or alternatively the risk of directly being caught up in the middle of mob violence, with little means to defend ourselves.

The only times you should ever consider bugging out is either if you have a set location you can quickly reach, such as a family home or cabin, or are forced from your home because your property is destroyed, or an evacuation order is put in place to protect yourself from natural disasters.

The concept of bugging out is arguably what got many of us into the prepping in the first place, and while the ability to leave your home at a moment’s notice cannot be understated.

The reality is bugging out should only be considered as an absolute last resort and often brings far more security risks than it could ever hope to address.

Remember, in most scenarios, a majority of people store their preps at home. There needs to be a good reason to leave all of that behind to solely rely on what’s on your back.

The Importance of Being Gray

If we assume that you’ll be bugging in for the duration of a Martial Law scenario, it’s important to take time to maintain your identity as a gray man.

How you do this is entirely dependent on your situation and your training, but the most important piece to remember is to actively take steps in order to blend into both your environment and the people around you.

Acting as a gray man is not only intended to keep you safe from being caught up in any violence as a result of civil unrest but also limit any attention you receive from authorities.

We recommend this anyway during your normal life, to minimize the scrutiny you receive from law enforcement or security forces, but the stakes could not be higher during Martial Law.

As Martial Law brings a suspension of civil courts, there is the very real risk that you may be detained for extended periods of times with almost no recourse except to simply wait until normalcy returns to the country.

With that said, the amount of publicity Martial Law would likely see across the world, from both mainstream journalists and independent documentation makes it highly unlikely we would ever see the internment camps of Hawaii ever brought back in the same force. Unlikely, but not impossible.

No matter what restrictions you may face, going gray should always be one of your upmost concerns to allow yourself to go on about your daily life mostly undisturbed even as society may crumble around you.

How to Communicate During Martial Law?

Civil unrest, especially when paired with Martial Law, brings a huge amount of uncertainty into our lives so staying up to date with the latest information is crucial.

While it’s likely updates will be continually broadcast on local news networks, the risk of power cuts or damage to your receiver makes it vital to have alternative means of receiving information.

Additionally, as Martial Law may result from natural disasters and likely brings mass panic, there is no guarantee phone providers will continue to be operational, again leaving you out of luck and in desperate need for alternate means of communication.

HAM radios are typically recommended in these situations, as their open frequencies make it easy to pick up transmissions from a range of emergency broadcasts, which is why we’ve written so extensively on the subject.

With that said, the lack of any encryption also leaves the potential risk of having your signal picked up by unwanted third parties, making satellite phones a much more reliable option when the worst happens.

Whether you choose a HAM radio or satellite phone entirely depends on your needs, but having access to both as part of your communications plan is always the best option wherever possible.

How to Protect Yourself During Martial Law?

To minimize the risk of violence during Martial Law, it’s almost guaranteed that at least some restrictions will be placed on our second amendment right to carry a firearm and more importantly protect ourselves. 

We’ve seen this repeatedly in light of the recent protests, where a state of emergency is paired with a temporary order making it illegal to carry a firearm (either openly or with a concealed carry permit). 

This makes protecting yourself increasingly more difficult. So, how can you defend yourself during martial law?

The first option some may consider is to disregard any restrictions put in place and conceal carry as you normally would. But again, without the typical civil courts in place, doing so could land you in very serious legal trouble with no forms of recourse.

Instead, it’s better to fall back on more primitive means of protection that can be easily concealed, carried in non-permissive environments, and rapidly deployed should the need ever arise.

Knives excel in this role, as they can explained away much more easily because of their utility role, but if you come across the wrong people, there is still a very real risk of falling into legal trouble.

To avoid this, various tools and equipment can be deployed in a self-defense role that flies well under the radar during most security checks, so much so you can even carry them through TSA and onto airplanes.

From pens, flashlights to custom-made bookmarks, there’s a wealth of items that can be covertly carried in almost any non-permissive environment. This has been proven time and time again, and they can be effective against any would-be attacker.

We’ll have a separate article coming soon looking exactly how you can defend yourself when stuck in non-permissive environments.

Additionally, this highlights why training in a discipline such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can prove so vital, as although we can try to avoid it, there will always be certain times in our life we are unable to carry a firearm but remain in vital need of some means to defend ourselves.

How to Document Martial Law?

Upon the declaration of martial law, there’s arguably very little that can be done besides waiting for legal battles to resolve themselves or for normalcy to return to America. But that does not mean you should simply sit and wait.

Documenting civil unrest and authoritative control is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from violence or abuses of power, while also ensuring that when normalcy returns there is a huge amount of evidence regarding the events that may occur during a Martial Law scenario.

The photos and videos you take of these events are critical to ensure those who overstep boundaries or cause violence can be held accountable (maybe), yet this is often easier said than done.

Shoving a camera in someone’s face is one of the easiest ways you can increase tensions and only further put yourself in danger. Instead, it’s often better to look for covert means of documentation.

I am personally a fan of covert compact cameras, such as the body camera from ehomful, for their size and affordability. 

For less than $40.00, they can easily be concealed on your person and also quickly disposed of should you ever find yourself in trouble, but many alternative solutions are available on the market.

The Insta360 Go comes highly recommended for a compact action camera that can be mounted almost anywhere and deployed at the push of a button, but the previously reviewed Vertx SOCP can also work incredibly well in covert environments by integrating your smartphone’s camera directly into the bag.

No matter the method you use during any emergency or SHTF scenario, it’s often worth taking some steps to document the events as accurately as possible to ensure the truth is never lost during the months of recovery after an event.

How to Avoid Martial Law?

Martial Law in select cases may be completely out of our control, such as in the event of foreign attacks against our nation or natural disasters.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any steps we can take as individuals to prevent situations from elevating to the point of requiring military intervention. The best scenario is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

It is our duty as Americans to ensure that any grievances we have with our society or government are mitigated the best way possible. This starts early in the process

Riots breed division, and our goal should be to protest peacefully. Whenever possible, remove yourself from the very first signs of a protest turning violent.

Additionally, it’s important to voice your concerns to your local politicians. Politicians are meant to serve as our representatives, not leaders, even though it often doesn’t feel that way.

More importantly, while a discussion with your local politician can be a great way to get your voice heard, there is nothing to stop you from directly getting involved with politics by staying up to date with local events, donating or volunteering to groups you support, or even running for a local office yourself.

It’s a time investment and can be a little defeating at times, especially considering that noticeable change takes time.


The fallout from a declaration of Martial Law is incredibly serious, as rights are quickly taken away in the name of protecting our nation, but it’s important to remember that such a declaration would likely only happen as an absolute last case scenario when almost everything else has failed.

While it’s arguably unlikely that Martial Law would ever be rolled out on a federal level, the implications of such an event could leave many of us trapped in our homes and in desperate need for supplies.

Keeping a stock of essentials, such as food, water, and medicine, with a well-developed survival plan can go a long way to keep us from being stuck and out of luck. However, survival goes well beyond simply being prepared. 

When disaster leads to violence, be sure to ready yourself by checking out our guide to surviving civil unrest to make sure that no matter the situation, you are always ready to respond and keep yourself and your family safe.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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