Ammon Bundy, the son of Utah welfare rancher Cliven Bundy who was arrested during the infamous 2014 militia confrontation with agents of the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2014, remains holed up with about 12-20 gun-toting friends and possibly a human shield of children at the headquarters building of the Malheur Federal Refuge near Burns, Oregon today.
Ostensibly inspired by Dwight and Steven Hammond, a local child abusing father-son ranching duo who returned to prison yesterday to serve out increased sentences for their arson convictions, Ammon Bundy wants to redistribute public lands to private interests — a cause with powerful backers.
Social media reactions to this ‘sagebrush putsch’ have largely consisted of heckling and ridicule, while most liberal opinion has expressed an admixture of understanding and impatience with the federal government’s hands-off approach to the situation.
But as clever as jokes about #YallQaeda or #VanillaISIS ‘waging yeehawd to impose Shania law‘ are, they tend to obscure the frightening fact that self-styled patriots with guns are getting bolder all the time, or that guns are steadily becoming fetishized fashion accessories in America.
Just as the ‘open carry’ movement has normalized the public display of assault rifles to the point that police respond more slowly to reports of suicide shooters, it is possible for us to get so used to armed takeovers of bird refuge visitor centers that they become as unremarkable as, say, schoolhouse massacres.
And remember, this is an election year like no other. If history is any guide, the laughter may end as 2017 begins.
Of course, the low spawn rate of ‘patriot militia’ groups during the George W. Bush administration surely reflects the comparative sense of political empowerment that armed-and-paranoid people feel when the White House is occupied by a Republican who panders to their belief system. But these numbers also result from the dual-track strategy of an enduring land privatization campaign funded by right wing billionaires: fossil fuel, timber, mining interests, and welfare ranchers lobby for administrative action while their puppet executives are in power, then stoke ‘range war’ whenever Democrats take the White House.
It’s important to remember that the standoff at Bundy Ranch began with support from the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an organization created and funded by the Koch brothers. Not coincidentally, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers’ state-level policy ‘bill mill’, has tirelessly worked to transfer public lands to private hands in recent years.
To be sure, these same people and organizations have now disassociated themselves from Ammon Bundy’s splinter group — and by extension, from the fundamentalist Mormon theology which updates a violent heritage of western sedition and that the entire Bundy family proudly claims as their inspiration.
In an unusual move, those interpretations of scripture even received official condemnation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints this week.
Stewart Rhodes, the recently-disbarred leader of the Oath Keepers militia — which conducted their own contrived standoff against federal officials in Oregon last year — has joined Mike Vanderboegh, leader of the ‘Three Percenter’ militia, in calling Ammon Bundy’s group “a possible false flag” meant to bring disrepute to their movement.
Given the minimal planning and poor spelling exhibited so far at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, it’s easy to see why conspiracy-addled ‘patriots’ would try to explain away this inconvenient scene as a sinister federal government plot.
The politics are therefore a bit different this time around, giving Republicans more room to maneuver. Ted Cruz, who blamed Obama’s supposed “jackbooted authoritarianism” for the confrontation in 2014, has called on Bundy’s ‘Committee of Safety’ to peacefully stand down from their occupation.
But if the person taking the oath on Inauguration Day next January eats “machine gun bacon,” or has a spokeswoman in a bullet necklace, can we really expect them to reign in armed, fanatical, flag-waving land use protesters? I doubt it.
In fact, while the gun lobby and the right wing media will surely crank up their conspiracy theorizing to eleven for any Democrat who espouses even marginal gun control policies, a Republican administration can be expected to once again implement the land-grabbing agenda that lurks behind Ammon Bundy’s dull-witted splinter group.
Expect more, and better-planned, ‘occupation’ scenarios. This year will also see plenty of mass shootings, because sadly that is our new normal as a country. Meanwhile, the gun lobby and its puppets will wage a loud legal and legislative campaign against President Obama’s executive orders on gun safety. In short, 2016 promises to be an extremely volatile year of unpredictable shooting events and highly-charged gun politics — and no matter who wins, matters will only get worse after November 8th.
So while we laugh at the yokels and giggle with amusement while the feds cut electricity to the building in the depths of winter, let’s not forget that Ammon and his friends are only making other armed reactionaries look more sane and reasonable by comparison, and the same is true for those powerful forces working to wrest control of public lands from the federal government.