Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, whose dispute with the Bureau of Land Management spurred a tense standoff between armed anti-government activists and federal officials over the weekend, had some strikingly specific directions for sheriffs across the country Monday night.
“Disarm the federal bureaucrats,” Bundy said in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. He had been asked to respond to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s assertion that the Bundy Ranch standoff (as it is now officially known on Wikipedia) was “not over.”
Bundy had already asked his local sheriff to arrest the BLM officials who were rounding up his cattle, but he directed his new message to “every county sheriff in the United States.”
Bundy’s statement brought to the forefront a theory that some on the far right have held for decades: that local sheriffs are ordained with an immense amount of power, going beyond that of even federal authorities. In the Bundy Ranch dispute, that theory is the driving ideology of some of the groups that have rallied to the rancher’s side. Those include the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Oath Keepers, whose members are law enforcement officials and military who have pledged to defend the Constitution against government overreach.
It was Richard Mack, a former Arizona county sheriff and founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs, who had said Monday that the gathered self-described militia had considered using women as human shields if a gunfight with federal officials erupted. He elaborated on those comments Monday in an interview with radio host Ben Swann.
“It was a tactical plot that I was trying to get them to use,” Mack said in comments flagged by The Raw Story. “If they’re going to start killing people, I’m sorry, but to show the world how ruthless these people are, women needed to be the first ones shot.”
“I’m sorry, that sounds horrible,” he continued. “I would have put my own wife or daughters there, and I would have been screaming bloody murder to watch them die. I would gone next, I would have been the next one to be killed. I’m not afraid to die here. I’m willing to die here.”
Some history helps explain these organizations’ interest in Bundy and their placement of his feud with BLM in a longer narrative.
A 2011 profile in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper explained how Mack, who served as Graham County sheriff in the late 1980s and early ’90s, first earned national attention when he led the legal challenge against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1994. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down one key part of the law, which had required state and local law enforcement to perform background checks on firearm purchases.
The sheriff, who cited a 1984 class with W. Cleon Skousen, who the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “a leading light of right-wing radicalism, a theocrat who believed the decline of America began with passage of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equality for the former slaves and others,” as his ideological awakening, lays out his worldview on the Constitutional Sheriffs site:
The county sheriff is the line in the sand. The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, “Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.” This is not only within the scope of the sheriff’s authority; it’s the sheriff’s sworn duty.
Mack did not respond to TPM’s request for comment on Tuesday.
Bundy’s rhetoric, urging county sheriffs to “disarm the federal bureaucrats,” certainly tracks with Mack’s history, Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, told TPM. While it’s difficult to know how much influence, if any, Mack wielded once he got on the ground in Nevada, he and Bundy share an obvious ideological alliance.
Pitcavage linked Bundy’s beef with BLM over his cattle grazing on federal land with the “wise use” movement that arose in the 1990s. It was comprised largely of ranchers and miners who resented federal agencies, including BLM, that exerted their authority over Western land, Pitcavage said.
“Out west, those sentiments are very much still alive, and Richard Mack is someone who recognizes that and capitalizes on it,” Pitcavage said. “For some time, one of Richard Mack’s main areas of emphasis has been promoting local government or just local affairs generally against the federal government.”
Mack and the Oath Keepers, an allied “non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders,” according to its website, appear to have helped organize the Bundy Ranch militia, which had grown to as many as 1,500 members by the weekend, Reuters estimated.
Both sent up digital calls for support. They posted the same release to their websites Thursday, announcing that Mack and the Oath Keepers members were joining a delegation heading to Bundy Ranch. The Oath Keepers also called on its 40,000 claimed members “to join the vigil at the Bundy ranch.” The group then outlined how it viewed the Bundy Ranch standoff as just one piece of a larger story:
This is not about cattle. This is about power, and the trampling of rights. It’s about a systemic power grab and abuse of power by the federal government as it runs roughshod over the rights of honest, hard-working rural Americans and over the rights of all the Western states. This is not an isolated incident. It is but the latest in a long train of abuses aimed at subjecting rural Americans to absolute despotism while destroying the property rights, economy, and independence of the rural West, in particular, and eventually wiping out all of rural America. This is an attack on all of the West, which is why patriotic legislators and lawmen from all over the West are answering the call to defend it.
“This is a full spectrum, frontal assault on the rural West,” it said. “This is truly a range war.”