Gun law in Nevada: agents yield to a man called Bundy

Washington politicians on the spot as cowboys and militiamen team up to drive the law out of town

Charles Laurence
(Image credit: 2014 Getty Images)

HAS a 67-year-old Mormon cowboy brought gun law back to the American West?

Cliven Bundy was in the saddle yesterday out in the desert scrub near Mesquite, Nevada, 80-odd miles north of Las Vegas, inspecting his cattle and savouring victory in a confrontation which has brought federal authorities to the brink of a shoot-out with armed militiamen of the far right.

Last week, agents of the US Bureau of Land Management, a Washington government agency, launched an operation to round up and evict a thousand head of Bundy’s cattle which a judge had agreed were “trespassing” on public range owned by the federal government.

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It could only happen in America. It has been dubbed 'Sagebrush II' in memory of old ‘range wars’ and goes back to the days of pioneers claiming the Great Plains of the Wild West for their own. It also goes to the heart of the political disputes over ‘Big Government’ and ‘States’ Rights’ which still consume Washington 150 years after the Civil War.

The Bundys ‘settled’ at Bunkerville, not far from the Utah border, in 1877, and Bundy claims that the government has no right to tell him that he cannot graze his cattle at will in the endless landscape that surrounds the family ranch. He argues that his ancestors were running herds on it before any government authority laid claim to its title.

The law did not agree, but when the BLM agents moved in last week they found themselves entering a political landscape somewhere to right of the Tea Party - where gun rights die-hards, off-the-grid Libertarians and the self-proclaimed militiamen of the Patriots and the Promise Keepers meet on the fringes of the Republican Party.

By Saturday, when the agents brought in the first 300 cattle to a makeshift coral under a highway ramp, they were met by a crowd estimated at 1,000-strong, many of them carrying guns. It looked as if blood would be shed between Washington and the rebels of the right for the first time since the confrontations at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in the 1990s, incidents that triggered the terrorist bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City.

Bundy’s 14 children and 52 grandchildren - he's a Mormon, remember - had gathered at the ranch, while hundreds of sympathisers blocked the main highway overlooking the coral with their parked cars. Cowboys with sidearms rode up on horses like a posse from a Hollywood movie, while militiamen appeared with assault–rifles, military fatigues and bullet-proof vests.

Jack Faught, Bundy’s first cousin, declared that “it’s not about the cows, it’s about the freedom to make our own choices close to home”.

Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and a founder of the Promise Keepers who swear to fight Washington to “defend the Constitution”, turned up and told Fox News of his plans: “If they [the agents] are going to start shooting, it is going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”

And so the BLM backed down. “Based on information about conditions on the ground and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” said its director, Neil Kornze.

Police allowed Bundy and his sons to release the cattle. Television cameras tracked them wandering off into the dry sagebrush landscape.

“The citizens of Nevada got my cattle back,” said Bundy. “They faced an army of bureaucrats, and they faced those guns with courage and faith and much danger. I’m excited we are really fighting for our freedom. We’ve been losing it a long time.”

It won’t be as simple as that. Washington, Nevada and Clarke County all now have the problem of re-establishing law and order because they cannot let Saturday’s gun law rule.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader in Washington who is a Nevada Democrat, put it simply: “It’s not over. We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”

But what can they do? The BLM announced yesterday that it would return to the courts. That is tantamount to saying they are hoping the problem will just go away, which it will not, of course, because Bundy has defied and ignored the courts since 1993. It was legal action by conservationists last year which forced the BLM to act on the original rulings and seize the cattle that precipitated the crisis.

It all started in 1989 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the desert tortoise an endangered species, and the BLM withdrew grazing rights from public land that included its habitat. Bundy, along with several of his neighbours, ignored the order.

In 1993, a judge first imposed fines and costs, along with demands for unpaid grazing fees of $1.35 per cow and calf per month, none of which Bundy has paid. The BLM claims he owes more than $1m, and says they will now sue for another $1m for the cost of the aborted round-up.

Bundy makes an almost perfect figure for the far-right fringes. Nobody symbolises the old image of American rugged individualism and personal freedom like a cowboy, and only the threat of gun restrictions makes a better case for the fear and loathing of Washington than “government land grabs”.

Bundy even goes to the heart of the ‘states’ rights’ issue, darling of today’s Republican Party, which began with the rights to hold slaves and continues over a host of issues from abortion rights and gay marriage to the right to impose voting regulations designed to restrict the black and Hispanic vote.

He claims that Washington has no right of ownership of any land in Nevada, although it believes it owns 80 per cent of the state which is mostly desert wilderness. He believes that ownership passed to Nevada when it became a state, so if anybody owns the grazing rights it is Nevada, or, better still, his local county. None of this has any basis in law.

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as a US government,” he says.

The government he does not believe exists faces a dilemma. With the story in the headlines, it has to force a resolution. But the last thing President Obama needs is a shoot-out with the extreme right, and the last thing “big government” needs is the blood of a cowboy on its hands.

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Charles Laurence is a US correspondent for The He is a former New York bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph. He divides his time between Manhattan and Woodstock, upstate New York.