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The Bundys, the family behind the Oregon militia standoff, explained

The militant Bundy family is making national headlines once again, following a shootout with federal officials near Burns, Oregon.

After weeks of the tense Oregon militia standoff led by the Bundys, law enforcement officials reportedly stopped a vehicle driven by militia members on Tuesday night, leading to a shootout that left one militia member dead and five others arrested.

Among the arrested were Ammon and Ryan Bundy, both of whom had helped lead the militia's takeover of the federal government's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters at the start of the year.

But who exactly are the Bundys, and why did they feel the need to take over a federal building?

The family is known for a 2014 standoff, led by Cliven Bundy, with federal officials in Nevada. But Cliven Bundy isn't present in the Oregon standoff, which has instead been led by the Bundy brothers, Ryan and Ammon.

The takeover started as a protest of the harsh mandatory minimum sentences given to two local ranchers, who were convicted of arson for starting two fires that damaged federal lands. But the local ranchers quickly distanced themselves from the militia, suggesting that they wanted nothing to do with the building takeover.

Moreover, the Bundy family isn't even from Oregon, and the family members don't, at first glance, appear to have a direct connection with ranchers in the area.

So how did the Bundys get involved, and why did the family think that taking over a federal building would be a good idea? The answer is complicated, going back to a long dispute between ranchers and the federal government over public land, and even to the Bundy family's religious beliefs.

The Bundys gained national notoriety in 2014

Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy's son.
Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy's son.
George Frey/Getty Images

The Bundys are a family of ranchers from Nevada, where the family has owned its land since it settled there in the late 1800s. According to the Washington Post, Cliven and Carol Bundy are followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — also known as Mormons — and have 14 children and more than 50 grandchildren. (Their faith is relevant; I'll get into that later.)

The Bundys rose to national prominence in 2014 after they led an armed standoff with federal agents from the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The feud between the Bundys and BLM goes back to 1993. Back then, BLM designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land near Las Vegas, including some land around Bundy's ranch, as protected to help an endangered tortoise. The designation effectively blocked ranchers from letting cattle graze on the land, at least without paying the appropriate fines and fees.

As Vox's Andrew Prokop explained, the Bundys allowed their cattle to graze on federal lands for 20 years anyway — without paying the required fees. The government finally took action in 2014, sending federal agents to take Cliven Bundy's cattle. But hundreds of protesters from around the nation joined the Bundys, including some armed militia members. The situation threatened to get violent, so the federal government backed off, returning the cattle to the Bundys.

The Bundys drew widespread support from conservative politicians, who characterized the family's battle as a brave act of defiance against an overreaching federal government. (Some politicians, including Ted Cruz, later walked back their support after it was reported that Cliven Bundy made racist comments.)

At face value, it would appear the Bundys simply didn't want to pay federal fees and fines for using federal land, which would have added up to more than $1 million. But the issue is much deeper, going back to a bigger dispute over the federal government's ownership of vast swaths of land in the western part of the country.

The Bundys' main issue with the government: use of federal land

For decades, there's been an ongoing dispute over the federal government's massive land ownership in the western US.

As of 2013, the federal government owned roughly 46.9 percent of the land in the 11 westernmost states in the continental US, compared with about 4 percent everywhere else, excluding Alaska, according to the Congressional Research Service. In some states, the feds own even more land — in Nevada, where the Bundys are from, the federal government owned nearly 85 percent of the land in 2013.

How did the federal government end up owning so much land in the west? During the country's founding, the general thinking was that it would be better to privatize most land and hand it over to farmers. But that thinking changed as the US expanded west, out of concerns that the lands weren't suitable for small farms and fears that the US's natural resources — particularly timber, a critical resource for fuel and construction — were being depleted by the private market.

"In the 1890s, there was a huge concern about the prospect of a timber famine, and timber was every bit as important to the national economy as fossil fuels are now," James McCarthy, a professor of geography at Clark University, told Prokop in 2014. "People said we absolutely have to have a reliable steady supply of timber, and we clearly can't trust private interests to do that, so we'd better have the federal government do it."

Originally, this land was managed by multiple federal agencies. But in the 1940s, those agencies were merged into BLM.

Regardless of the reasons, many locals don't like the huge levels of federal ownership out west, and especially don't like all the rules and laws that come with the land. They would rather see the land in state hands or, preferably, directly under the ownership of local ranchers, miners, and loggers.

For the Bundys, this is a states' rights issue. They see the federal government as encroaching on land that should belong to locals and violating constitutional guards for states' rights by doing so.

Defenders of the current setup argue it's necessary to protect the land's resources. In fact, it was an environmental protection that pushed the Bundys into this issue, with the BLM's 1993 move to declare large chunks of federal land in Nevada as protected to help an endangered tortoise.

The Washington Post reported on the Bundys' discontent back then:

Cliven Bundy, whose family homesteaded his ranch in 1877 and who accuses the government of a 'land grab,' are digging in for a fight and say they will not willingly sell their grazing privileges to create another preserve.

The controversy even led to a bombing at the US Forest Service office in Carson City, Nevada, in 1995. No one was injured, but tensions between locals and federal agencies heightened, according to a USA Today article also reported by the Post:

The situation is becoming so tense that federal workers now travel mostly in pairs and are in constant radio contact with district offices.

"I'm concerned about the safety of my employees," says Jim Nelson, Forest Service district manager for Nevada. "They can't go to church in these communities without having someone say something. Their kids are harassed in school. Stores and restaurants are not serving them."

This conflict arrived to Oregon after two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were convicted of arson after they started two fires in 2001 and 2006 that damaged federal lands. The Hammonds say the fires were meant to protect their property from invasive plant species and another fire, although the government said one of the fires was meant to hide illegal deer killing, and both fires put people, including firefighters, at risk.

The Bundys don't believe the Hammonds should have been convicted in the first place, because, in the Bundys' view, local ranchers should own the federal land and use it as they wish. "I abide by all state laws," Cliven Bundy told the Las Vegas Sun in 2013. "But I abide by almost zero federal laws."

Ammon Bundy, one of the militia leaders in Oregon, explained the Bundys' views in a video posted to the family's Facebook page:

Standing for the rights of men & women

BREAKING! SHARE! Standing for the rights of Men & Women. Calling all freedom loving people to come to Harney County Oregon, come to the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge. The people are finally getting some good use out of a federal facility.

Posted by Bundy Ranch on Saturday, January 2, 2016

"We're out here because the people have been abused long enough, really," Ammon Bundy said. "Their lands and their resources have been taken from them — to the point where it's putting them literally in poverty. And this facility here [the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters] has been a tool into doing that. It is the people's facility, owned by the people. And it has been provided for us to be able to come together and unite, and making a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people's land and resources."

Of course, it is one thing to protest the federal government's land ownership in the west, and another to literally take up arms against the government.

Part of the Bundys' rationale is that extreme actions are necessary to counter what they see as extreme actions from the federal government. "I feel that we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not make a hard stand," Ammon Bundy said, "we will be in a position where we won't be able to as a people."

But the Bundys have also invoked another reason for their actions: their Mormon faith.

The Bundys' extreme interpretation of Mormonism may play a role

The Bundys have repeatedly referenced their religious views as one of their primary justifications for their actions.

Cliven Bundy, for one, repeatedly cited his Mormon faith during the 2014 standoff in Nevada, as John Sepulvado reported for Oregon Public Broadcasting: "'If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?' he asked, noting no one was killed as tensions escalated. 'Could those people that stood [with me] without fear and went through that spiritual experience … have done that without the Lord being there? No, they couldn't.'"

Ammon Bundy also claimed that God led him to fight back against the government in Oregon. "I began to understand how the Lord felt about Harney County [in Oregon] and about this country, and I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," Bundy, who often cites Mormon scripture, said in a video he posted to YouTube on January 1. "What was happening to them, if it was not corrected, would be a type and a shadow of what would happen to the rest of the people across this country."

According to OPB, one militia member in Oregon also identified himself as "Captain Moroni," a military hero who Mormon teachings say lived in the Americas around 100 BC and fought off a corrupt king.

The rhetoric comes from a curious interpretation of the Bundys' Mormon faith. To be clear, the Bundys' armed stand against the government doesn't represent the views of the vast majority of Mormons, who are also taught to comply with their governments. But the Bundys' potential interpretation of their faith helps explain their motives.

As Vox's Johnny Harris explained, Mormons have a fraught history with different levels of government in the US, having been persecuted multiple times — violently, in many cases — by state officials in New York state, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri since their church's founding in 1830. (At one point, the governor of Missouri issued an "extermination order" against Mormons.) This led Mormons to flee to Utah when it was owned by Mexico, but they eventually rejoined the US after the country seized the territory in the Mexican-American War.

The result: Many Mormons don't trust the government, and even see it as dangerous. "There is this persecution complex that Mormons have and have had for a long time," Steve Evans, editor of the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, told BuzzFeed.

Jim Dalrymple explained for BuzzFeed:

Mormon scripture is filled with tales of government misbehavior and righteous people who fought back. At one point, the Book of Mormon recounts the story of a wicked and lazy King Noah, who among many other sins "laid a tax of one-fifth part" on his subjects in order to support himself and his "whoredoms."

Later, the Book of Mormon tells the story of the Gadianton Robbers — the worst of the worst among Mormonism’s villains — who took over the government, sought glory, and let "the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money."

These are issues not unlike those being raised by the people involved in the Oregon standoff.

As the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives explained, Mormons view the US itself as "a promised land" and the Constitution as divine — so an intrusion by the federal government on this land or the Constitution is seen as an affront to their faith. In the past, this led Mormons to lash out, including one instance in which Mormon militiamen killed 120 California-bound settlers in 1857. (One of the people believed to be involved in that massacre was Dudley Leavitt, a distant relative of the Bundys.)

Again, the hard-line views don't represent the majority of Mormons, most of whom see an armed confrontation with the government as wrong. The Mormon Church issued a statement condemning the Bundys' takeover of the federal building in Oregon:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Furthermore, you don't necessarily need religion to explain the Bundys' actions — after all, the Bundys' beliefs about government and states' rights aren't exclusive to Mormons, instead reflecting views held by many conservatives in the western US of all religious affiliations.

Still, the Bundys' faith appears to play some role in their actions. That and other issues — the Bundys' views of their livelihood, the federal government, and states' rights — have led the family to lash out in extreme ways, culminating in an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada and, now, a shootout in Oregon.

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