Wouldn't it be nice if we could all make up our own laws? Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has been doing that for 20 years, running his cattle on federal lands and refusing to pay the grazing fees that thousands of other ranchers do because he refuses to recognize the federal government's ownership.
In fact, he says, he doesn't "recognize the United States government as even existing." He argues that his family was on the land before the government was so he shouldn't have to pay, despite numerous court rulings saying he must.
Now his long simmering battle has come to a boil. When the Bureau of Land Management tried to carry out a court order by confiscating hundreds of his cattle, the rancher's call for help was answered by scores of armed men and a passel of legislators, including would-be president Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and fellow GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who admiringly called Bundy's gun-toting supporters "patriots."
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As the deadly shootout with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in 1993 showed, armed zealots are more than willing to die to make a point. One member of the Bundy army, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, said they even planned to use women as human shields, so they would be the first to die on television if the feds opened fire.
Faced with that kind of lunacy, the BLM wisely, if temporarily, backed off despite the obvious risk of sending a dangerous message that if you don't like a law, you needn't obey it.
Meanwhile, the lawmakers who foolishly rushed to Bundy's side were learning the risks of such opportunism. Inspired by huge news media attention, the 67-year-old rancher expanded to reporters on other topics, including that blacks in government subsidized housing might be "better off as slaves, picking cotton." A spokesman for Heller quickly told The New York Times that the senator "completely disagrees" with that, and Paul issued a statement saying Bundy's remarks were "offensive."
Beneath this clownish theater, there are some serious points. One is that Westerners have long and understandably chafed at federal ownership of so much land in the West, including more than 80% of Nevada.
But Bundy's claim of title is simply wrong. Nevada and other states specifically ceded any claim to the land when they joined the union. They even wrote that fact into their constitutions. Further undermining Bundy's case, the U.S. Constitution's Property Clause gives Congress authority over national territory. The Supreme Court has upheld that power as "without limitation."
It's not hard to understand the frustration of a cattle rancher who is told — as Bundy was — that he can no longer run his cattle on federal grazing land because of harm to the protected desert tortoise. That decision deserves re-evaluation. But not at the point of a gun.
The government obviously cannot let Bundy declare that he is above the law without inviting everyone else to do the same.
Tortoises and armed mobs aside, he eventually must be compelled to pay his bills.
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