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Bundy about to trade soapbox for cell block

There are times it seems Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy has spent as many years on the stump as in the s addle, pouring forth his views on federal lands and the Constitution from the dusty middle of nowhere.

Bundy and sons Ryan and Ammon have grown as skilled at rounding up reporters as bringing in the herd. From a website and Facebook posts, to exclusive interviews and lengthy legal lectures from the top of a hay wagon, anyone interested in the Bundys’ considered opinions has been able to find it.

Which is why some of his critics surely found Cliven Bundy’s brevity Thursday in U.S. District Court so ironic. This fellow who’s been called everything from a God-fearing symbol of a Western lands movement to the spiritual leader of the dangerous sovereign citizen militia crowd, told U.S. Magistrate Judge William Hoffman, “I make no plea before this court.” That compelled the jurist to enter a “not guilty” plea on Bundy’s behalf.

For the purposes of his current legal dilemma, the 69-year-old Bundy doesn’t want to recognize the authority of the federal government. Suffice to say the federal government has no trouble doing that for itself: 16 felony charges related to an armed standoff in 2014 with the Bureau of Land Management that threaten to put him in prison until long after the cows come home. Pretending the federal government doesn’t have the right to enforce the law on federal lands is like closing your eyes in the face of a stampede.

Here is where the government, in my mind, must play against type and take care to neither gloat nor try to bury Bundy under the penitentiary, which the weight of the charges he faces promises to do. Let’s just say I’m not confident all the authorities are listening.

When the indictment was announced in February, BLM Director Neil Kornze enthused, “Today marks a tremendous step toward ending more than 20 years of law breaking. The nation’s public lands belong to all Americans.”

He let his cows graze on federal land not under his lease and has refused to pay the assessed penalties, which now exceed $1 million. Al Capone, he ain’t.

Kornze didn’t add that the BLM’s arrogance in marking off “First Amendment Areas” for the press and the protesting public during the Bunkerville standoff made the agency look downright dictatorial. Nor did he acknowledge the BLM’s role in helping to facilitate the standoff, failing to appreciate the potential its roundup would have on rural Westerners and the region’s militia types. It’s not like this should have come as a surprise to anyone at the BLM, one of the most disliked agencies in the rural West.

Bundy is responsible for his behavior, and he’s bound to pay a heavy price. So be it. But the government played a role in this mess, too.

With 18 defendants, the FBI should have had little trouble gathering more than enough evidence to fill a corral with convictions. The rifle-waving and chest-thumping flowed like cheap whiskey during the 2014 incident, there’s no shortage of eyewitnesses, and the Bundy clan appeared to thoroughly enjoy being the center of attention. The self-styled militia members with their assault-style weapons and Army-style fatigues are about to be reminded that in the real world living out your revolutionary fantasies comes at a cost.

Bundy is easy to write off as a bumpkin-scofflaw or the patriarchal face of the sovereign citizen movement. Others want to lump him in with bigoted domestic terrorists. I’d suggest waiting for the evidence. There will be plenty of it.

He also has his supporters. On the steps of the courthouse Thursday, Bundy’s wife, Carol, and 100 or so allies staged a peaceful protest. She is stepping up for her husband and calling him a political prisoner. It’s probably easier than admitting he dug himself a helluva hole.

Trouble with Bundy’s friends is, they can support him only as far as the penitentiary gate. Once it slams, those years of running cattle illegally and bloviating about the Founding Fathers will be officially over.

That’s the trail Bundy chose long ago.

But it’s the government that would be wise to avoid crushing Bunkerville’s cockeyed cowboy, lest it wind up anointing a martyr in a movement it doesn’t fully comprehend.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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