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Eighteen days since brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a rift has opened among community members who disagree upon whether the Bundy clan should stay or leave. (Photo: Kelly House / The Oregonian/OregonLive)

To the Petulant Men with Guns Trampling on Public Land in Oregon

Chase Thomas

Do you ever look back and cringe at the way you acted as a child when you didn’t get your way? Throwing fits. Refusing to do chores. Sneaking out at night.  Running away from home. Luckily, we eventually learned that it was better for us to leave that all behind once we joined the adult world.  

Well, most of us did. Looking at the debate over public lands in the West, it seems as if not everyone learned how to leave those childish behaviors behind – and they are raising the stakes by throwing their temper tantrums with guns.  

Upset at finding out that it’s a crime to burn federal land, a group of militants in Oregon decided that they should take over the federal land.  After being told that a southern Utah road was being closed to motorized vehicle use, Phil Lyman and a group of armed radicals decided to take an ATV "protest ride" down the canyon anyway.  Enraged that his cattle had been confiscated after he refused to pay to use the lands that we all collectively own, Cliven Bundy and his ragtag militia engaged in an armed standoff with federal authorities until the feds, fearing blooshed, backed off. 

These protests are not the hippie tying himself to a tree or activist peacefully refusing to sit in the back of the bus – this is armed rebellion and the petulant behaviors don’t seem very childish anymore.  They are foolish and, if left unchecked, dangerous.   

Recent examples illuminate why people taking policies into their own hands through the threat of violence is a course of action that should not be encouraged.  A man in Colorado decided to weigh in on the abortion debate, attacking a Planned Parenthood and killing three people as a "warrior for the babies."  Earlier this month, a mayor in Morelos, Mexico was killed one day after taking office—one of forty mayors killed in Mexico over the last eight years by those who do not agree with their policies.  And Islamic extremists who disagree with Western policies and their own governments’ level of religious devotion continue to spread terror around the globe.  

Before things get out of control, let’s take a step back and realize that we’ve been down this road before.  We all used to engage in childish behaviors to get what we wanted, but as we grew up, we discovered these behaviors are not the most effective way to get things done.  Upon becoming adults, we learned how to deal with those with whom we don’t agree.  We learned how to talk with others, discuss issues, compromise and negotiate.  

This same type of learning and progression happened over the course of human society.  It used to be that societal disagreements were solved through assassinations, rebellions, and revolutions.  If the people didn’t agree with the policies of the king, they would murder him.  Thankfully, the wanton death and destruction came to be viewed as uncivilized and people came up with a better way to deal with their differences.  A new form of society was created through which citizens would discuss, debate, and vote on issues and come together as a collective whole through representative government.   

In order to protect against the return of society’s childish inclinations of the past, the founders of our nation decided to write down all the rules dictating how to act as an adult society.  For the past 227 years, the Constitution has provided a basic framework for how we interact and solve problems as a society in our nation.  The militants in Oregon grasp onto a few select clauses in their pocket Constitutions but seem to conveniently forget those parts which provide for electing the representatives who created the laws and policies which they now violently protest.  

Recently my organization, Alliance for a Better Utah, joined the Ballots Not Bullets Coalition. Here’s our philosophy… In the United States of America, we don’t decide our disputes by seeing who has the most guns or by waiting to see who will last longest in an armed standoff.  We have a better, more effective way.  We discuss.  We debate.  And we vote.  Our voices should be heard through ballots, not bullets.  

If you agree, please join us at the Ballots Not Bullets Coalition.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Chase Thomas

Chase Thomas is the Policy and Advocacy Associate Director for the Alliance for a Better Utah.  He is also the Mary Alice Woolley Public Service Fellow from the BYU Law Class of 2015.

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