The Cable

Oregon Standoff Part of Larger Surge of Anti-Government Groups

The dozen or so armed men holed up on federal land have many issues with the federal government; land use is just one of them.

Members of a small militia at the entrance to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters property some 30 miles from Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016. The armed anti-government group have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some schools to call off classes for the entire week.    AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR        (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of a small militia at the entrance to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters property some 30 miles from Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016. The armed anti-government group have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some schools to call off classes for the entire week. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)

The armed, anti-government protesters shivering it out on the frozen expanse of an Oregon wildlife refuge say they’re taking a stand against unfairly restrictive federal land-use policies. The challenge for law enforcement personnel around the United States is that there are more such militias than ever before — and that the number could grow even larger if Democrats keep the White House.

Experts who study right-wing militants like those involved in the current standoff say the protesters are motivated as much by politics as specific policies. The fortunes of the militias, experts say, rise and fall with the election cycle.

“The anti-government movement is almost entirely tied to Democratic presidents, which causes [the number of] groups to rise,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The numbers are striking. During the years Bill Clinton was president, the number of anti-government militias hit a peak of 858 by 1996. That fell to a low of 131 in 2007 under the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.

Then President Barack Obama came to office. In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,360 anti-government organizations. Those numbers have since dipped to about 900 groups, but Beirich says that this may mostly be due to the consolidation of many of these loose-knit organizations, which don’t subscribe to any real leadership structure.

They do, however, generally share what Beirich describes as “an overarching ideology” that is hostile to the federal government and to the policies the militants ascribe to Democratic presidents.

Take gun control, a bête noire of many anti-government groups. Obama has singularly failed in his attempts to get legislation curbing the accessibility of firearms through the Republican-controlled Congress, but that hasn’t stopped a surge in gun sales across the country in recent years based on rumors of a coming crackdown on firearm ownership.

The fear of losing gun rights is “the main motivator” for many people involved in the anti-government movement, Beirich said, adding that “there’s this belief on the part of these folks that gun control is in the mix” whenever a Democrat is elected.

President Obama is set to announce executive actions on Tuesday that will expand background checks for those who want to purchase firearms, while at the same time enhancing federal enforcement of the country’s existing gun laws the White House announced Monday. But the administration says that the moves will do more to clarify existing laws, rather than placing new restrictions on gun ownership.

Anti-government violence has taken hundreds of American lives in recent decades, most notably in the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in what had been, until 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in American history.

There hasn’t been a similarly bloody attack since, but law enforcement personnel believe the groups continue to pose a real threat.

In a 2014 survey of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent of the respondents said anti-government extremism was among the top three terrorist threats that they had to face. By comparison, 39 percent listed Islamic extremism as being among the top threats, and 33 percent identified pro-environmental radicals. In another finding from the survey, 7 percent of the law enforcement personnel said anti-government extremists posed a “severe” threat to their areas, while just 3 percent said Islamic extremists represented such a danger.

“The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists,” the researchers, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Just ask the police.”

The issue of homegrown extremism has stirred controversy for years, perhaps never more so than in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security released an intelligence assessment concluding the faltering economy and the election of the nation’s first African American president could cause a spike in right-wing extremism.  The report also outlined the department’s concern that returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets were ripe targets for these groups. After an outcry from veterans organizations, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to defend the report while apologizing to veterans.

Administration officials are trying to lower tensions with the activists in Oregon, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest telling reporters Monday that “we’re hopeful that the situation can be resolved peacefully without any violence.”

The group of at least a dozen armed men occupying the stone house on the Oregon federal reserve are being led by Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, who say they’re leading the charge against the prosecution of local ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, convicted of arson for fires they started that spread to federal property. The father and son quietly turned themselves in to federal authorities on Monday, ready to serve their sentences of about four years each.

Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, are beginning to carefully wade into the debate.

During a campaign event in Iowa on Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called on the protesters to “stand down,” saying, “every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds, but we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others.”

Fellow candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told an Iowa radio station Monday that while he has some sympathy for the argument that the federal government should release its claim to some land in Western states, “you’ve got to follow the law. You cannot be lawless.” He added, “we live in a republic. There are ways to change the laws of this country and the policies. If we get frustrated with it, that’s why we have elections, that’s why we have people we can hold accountable.”

Photo credit: ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images

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