Guest Editorial: "Militia" members are thugs

The Arizona Republic
Jan. 4
Guest Editorial

It’s #YallQueda in Oregon as a bunch of anti-government types launch #YeeHawd.

That’s how Twitter users reacted to the armed takeover of a wildlife sanctuary by guys with guns who object to a mandatory minimum sentence for ranchers convicted of arson on federal land.

The Twitter sarcasm has sharp teeth.

But an armed standoff is no laughing matter. First, this needs to be settled without bloodshed. The federal government has shown skill in resolving similar situations.

Next, the perpetrators need to be treated as criminals. The feds did not do that the last time the Bundy name was in the news.

Protesters carry signs, not guns. These guys are thugs.

There legitimate differences of opinion about how the federal government manages vast stretches of public land in the west, but this band of armed occupiers earned the hashtag #CowTippingTerrorists.

Front and center in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Two other Bundy brothers are also involved.

The father’s 2014 standoff with federal officials over unpaid grazing fees attracted the misguided support of many politicians.

Instead of consequences, Bundy the elder’s armed temper tantrum got him a national spotlight and accolades from irresponsible conservative politicians. The Bureau of Land Management has yet to collect the more than $1 million Bundy owes for leasing public land for his cattle.

No wonder his sons became leaders of the armed group that took over a federal building on the wildlife refuge.

Ostensibly, this, too, is about a landlord-tenant dispute between a public-land rancher and the public land managers.

Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond were convicted of arson on federal land in 2001 and 2006.

Witnesses at the trial said the first fire was started to hide evidence that the Hammonds “illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property,” according to a Department of Justice press release. The ranchers said the fires spread to public land after being set on their own property, the first one to stop an invasive plant species and the second to stop the spread of wildfire.

A jury didn’t buy their story.

But when sentenced in 2012, the public-land ranchers argued that the mandatory five-year minimum sentence was unconstitutional and the trial court imposed much shorter sentences. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the longer federal minimum sentences “given the seriousness of arson.” The Supreme Court rejected the Hammonds' appeal.

The pair was subsequently sentenced to five years each, with credit for time served.

Protests grew into the takeover by those who, according to Oregon's Harney County Sheriff David Ward, arrived in southeastern Oregon with “alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the ... government in hopes of sparking a movement across the United States.”

The protesters, represented by Ammon Bundy, said their goal was to “assist the people of Harney County in claiming their rights.”

Sorry, Junior. In this country, that happens in court, not in armed confrontations.

Three other Arizonans are involved in this lawless effort in Oregon – LaVoy Finicum, Jon Ritzheimer and Blaine Cooper.

Ritzheimer, who organized an armed protest outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix in May, appears in a YouTube video about the Oregon situation holding a copy of the Constitution and spouting faux-patriotic drivel about the need to “stand our ground together.”

The Constitution is about the rule of law, not armed standoffs.

This situation is volatile and the federal government is wise to go slow and avoid a shootout.

But when it’s all over, those responsible for an armed takeover of a federal building need to be treated like the criminals they are.