WASHINGTON/BUNKERVILLE, NEVADA – Flat on his belly in a sniper position, wearing a baseball cap and a flak jacket, a protester aimed his semi-automatic rifle from the edge of an overpass and waited as a crowd below stood its ground against U.S. federal agents in the Nevada desert.
He was part of a 1,000-strong coalition of armed militiamen, cowboys on horseback, gun rights activists and others who rallied to Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch, about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Las Vegas, in a standoff with about a dozen agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The rangers had rounded up hundreds of Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on federal lands for two decades. Bundy had refused to pay grazing fees, saying he did not recognize the government’s authority over the land, a view that attracted vocal support from some right-wing groups.
Citing public safety, the BLM agents retreated, suspending its operation and even handing back cattle it had already seized.
No shots were fired during the standoff, which Bundy’s triumphant supporters swiftly dubbed the “Battle of Bunkerville.” But the government’s decision to withdraw in the face of armed resistance has alarmed some who worry that it has set a dangerous precedent and emboldened militia groups.
“Do laws no longer apply when the radical right no longer agrees?” asked Ryan Lenz, a writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors militia group activity.
Armed Americans using the threat of a gunfight to force federal officers to back down is virtually unparalleled in the modern era, experts on the militias said. But the BLM, which says it is now pursuing legal and administrative options to resolve the dispute, has won praise for stepping back and avoiding violence.
Energized by their success, Bundy’s supporters are already talking about where else they can exercise armed defiance. They include groups deeply suspicious of what they see as a bloated, overreaching government they fear wants to restrict their constitutional right to bear arms.
Alex Jones, a radio host and anti-government conspiracy theorist whose popular right-wing website, Infowars, helped popularize Bundy’s dispute, called it a watershed moment.
“Americans showed up with guns and said, ‘No, you’re not,’ ” before confronting the armed BLM agents, Jones said in an interview. “And they said, ‘Shoot us.’ And they did not. That’s epic. And it’s going to happen more.”
In interviews militia experts said they could not think of another example in recent decades where different militia groups had banded together to offer armed resistance to thwart a law enforcement operation.
Few people had heard of Bundy and his ranch until a few days before the standoff. Right-wing websites and advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity, founded by one of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, cast his tale in a folksy David and Goliath light and helped spread it online.
Someone who has known Bundy since his early 1990s fall-out with the BLM is Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who founded the militia group Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Mack is also a prominent member of Oath Keepers, a similar group of serving or former soldiers, police and firefighters who view themselves as defenders of the Constitution. More than 100 Oath Keepers headed to the desert, Mack said.
Mack, who proposed putting women on the front line of the standoff with the agents, said armed resistance was a justified response to a “totally unnecessary” show of force by the BLM.
“It was so obvious it looked like it was going to be another Waco or Ruby Ridge,” Mack said, referring to two bloody sieges in the 1990s involving federal agents and armed civilians that fueled the militia movement. “We weren’t going to let that happen again.”
A number of Bundy supporters wearing military fatigues and carrying rifles and pistols had traveled from California, Idaho, Arizona, Montana and beyond. Most kept their handguns in their holsters. Mack, who wore his gun on his hip, and other Bundy supporters interviewed said they would not shoot first but would retaliate if fired upon.
“We did not want anything to get out of hand,” Mack said.
The showdown last weekend marked the latest resurgence of violent, anti-government sentiments that have existed in rural U.S. regions for centuries, said Catherine Stock, a history professor at Connecticut College who specializes on the subject.
“The question is whether we’re going to see sustained flame-up now. We could see more of that if they actually think that the federal government is going to stand down,” she said. “It’s not the groups, it’s not their concerns, it’s not their anger, all of that is old, but the federal government backing down? I was like, wow! Seriously?”
Stock said the rise of right-wing media outlets and websites and the election of Republican politicians who have shifted the party further to the right have given a new legitimacy to groups that were once dismissed as being on the fringe.