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Not prosecuting lawbreakers leads to more crime

There are many reasons why the ongoing armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon happened.

Chief among them: the federal government's inaction since the last standoff with armed insurrectionists, near Bunkerville in 2014.

That's when notorious rancher Cliven Bundy issued a call for a "range war" after the Bureau of Land Management finally moved in to collect two decades worth of unpaid grazing fees. After self-styled militia types descended on and near Bundy's ranch, pointing guns at federal officers and Las Vegas police, and at one point closing down an interstate highway, the BLM backed off.

And while we've been told that federal authorities continue to investigate the Bundy matter, no prosecutions have come. Asked last month about the situation, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the wheels of justice turn slowly.

They sure do: And while those wheels turn, the Bundy Boys are free to roam the countryside looking for another face-off with the feds. (Two of Bundy's sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are among the Oregon standoff's leaders.)

This time, however, things are different. The Oregon ranchers whose story started the incident — Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven — are willingly returning to prison to serve time for illegally burning federal land. They issued a letter through their attorney last month disassociating themselves with their would-be defenders.

Also, the sheriff of Harney County, David Ward, has asked the armed protesters to go home. (According to Bundy logic, the sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in any given jurisdiction.)

Thus far, there have been no photographs of prone snipers sighting up on police or federal officers, as there were in Bundyville. But the occupiers have said they will use force to defend themselves if authorities act to end their occupation.

Now let's dismiss the idea that this band of insurrectionists is just a better-armed version of Occupy Wall Street, which camped in public spaces in New York and elsewhere to draw attention to corporate malfeasance and a lack of accountability. Occupy Wall Street never advocated the idea of achieving its goals through force of arms. And it never embraced the constitutionally dubious ideas fomented by the so-called militias of Bunkerville and, now, Harney County. (Among those false notions is the idea that the federal government cannot legally own or control federal lands.)

Instead, let's confront the facts as they are: Armed insurrectionists once more seeking out a fight with the federal government, simply to highlight a version of public lands law they think is right.

Sen. Harry Reid, speaking at a Monday news conference, summed up the common-sense response to the occupation: "These people who say they want to return it [public lands] to the people, that's who has it. The people have it right now," Reid said.

Ah, yes, but they don't have the exclusive right to use it however and whenever they see fit, for their own profit and regardless of the needs of other would-be users, the environment or the public good. Ultimately, that's what the insurrectionists really want. (Well, that and engaging in a pathetic version of patriot cosplay with actual federal officers cast as the bad guys.)

As for whether the Bunkerville lawbreakers will ever be punished, and future armed seizures of federal structures discouraged? Reid had an answer for that, too: "But their day will come. They can't continue breaking the law like this without anything coming from the people who believe there should be law and order," he said. "I'm very patient, and I think we should all be very patient. But not for too long."

— Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of the show "PoliticsNOW," airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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