Op-ed: Utah politicians must do more to prevent future Malheurs

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

On June 20, the Senate voted down gun reforms supported by a majority of the American people: universal background checks and closing the “terror gap” (preventing individuals on terrorist watch lists from legally purchasing firearms). Three days later, Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., led a “sit-in” on the floor of the House of Representatives calling for votes on the same bills.

Weak gun laws threaten people; that is tragically obvious in the aftermath of Orlando. What is less obvious is that weak gun laws threaten democracy itself. In addition to putting vulnerable communities at risk, weak gun laws embolden anti-government militias who want to use force to dismantle our democracy, specifically our long-standing public lands system.

Regarding debates about control of public lands, a Southern Poverty Law Center report concluded that irresponsible politicians encouraged anti-government extremists with explicit or tacit support. Our government’s inaction on guns is legitimizing threats of violence as a debate tactic and potentially paving the way for the people with the most firepower to have the biggest say in public lands policy. The Ballots Not Bullets Coalition, of which my organization is a part, is a grouping of national and state organizations deeply concerned by the increasing use of violence and threats of violence to affect public policy in the United States, perhaps most recently dramatized by the takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed militants who believed the federal government had overstepped its bounds in managing public lands. The coalition was formed in response to similar threats.

Across the country, anti-government militias have attempted to seize and control public lands with threats of violence rather than engaging in productive debate or invoking the power of the ballot box. Examples other than Malheur include the off-road-vehicle users who used guns to force their way into Recapture Canyon in Utah and ride roughshod over natural and archeological sites; the occupation of Sugar Pine Mine by Oath Keepers; and the standoff at Bunkerville, Nev., where hundreds of militia members, including well-placed snipers, engaged in a tense stand-off with federal employees to keep rancher Cliven Bundy’s cows illegally on public lands.

It is ironic that the Second Amendment is being used as a bludgeon by militias. Our Constitution explicitly states in Article 1, Section 8 that the purpose of the militia is to “suppress insurrections,” not to start them. These insurrectionists fail to understand that public lands are held in trust for the American people. We can’t partake in that trust if the places we recreate are overtaken by armed mobs. Nor can the lands themselves withstand such an occupation, because it prevents all meaningful efforts at conservation.

The Ballots Not Bullets Coalition will keep working to make sure this country is governed by peaceful, democratic methods. We are currently addressing the heated rhetoric about proposals to declare federal lands surrounding the Bears Ears area in Utah as a national monument. Opponents have gone so far as to post signs declaring an open season on backpackers and inviting use of any weapon.

It’s time to call out the politicians who fail to condemn these threats, including Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who made ominous statements foretelling potential violence if the Obama administration designates the monument.

Individual rebellion by would-be sovereign citizens has no place in our democracy or in debates about management of public lands. Guns should never grant citizens more power to influence public policy than the vote. The threat to democracy posed by such extremists must be part of the debate as the House and Senate continue their deliberations on gun reform in the weeks ahead.

Taylor Jones is the endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians and a member of the Ballots Not Bullets Coalition.

Read The Salt Lake Tribune article here.

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