REDMOND, Ore. — B.J. Soper took aim with his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and fired a dozen shots at a human silhouette target. Soper’s wife and their 16-year-old daughter practiced drawing pistols. Then Soper helped his 4-year-old daughter, in pink sneakers and a ponytail, work on her marksmanship with a .22-caliber rifle.
Deep in the heart of a vast U.S. military training ground, surrounded by spent shotgun shells and juniper trees blasted to shreds, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard was conducting its weekly firearms training.
“The intent is to be able to work together and defend ourselves if we need to,” said Soper, 40, a building contractor who is an emerging leader in a growing national movement rooted in distrust of the federal government, one that increasingly finds itself in armed conflicts with authorities.
Those in the movement call themselves patriots, demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.
Law enforcement officials call them dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession.
To an Eastern elitist, any objection to Obama’s illegal actions and executive decisions are seen as racist. There is nothing that Soper or his associates say that could be remotely construed as racist, but any objection to Obama is judged in that vein. The spin is automatic.
Soper started his group, which consists of about 30 men, women and children from a handful of families, two years ago as a “defensive unit” against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” Mainly, he’s talking about the federal government, which he thinks is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.
The group’s members are drywallers and flooring contractors, nurses and painters and high school students, who stockpile supplies, practice survival skills and “basic infantry” tactics, learn how to treat combat injuries, study the Constitution and train with their concealed handguns and combat-style rifles.
“It doesn’t say in our Constitution that you can’t stand up and defend yourself,” Soper said. “We’ve let the government step over the line and rule us, and that was never the intent of this country.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said there were about 150 such groups in 2008 and about 1,000 now. Potok and other analysts, including law enforcement officials who track the groups, said their supporters number in the hundreds of thousands, counting people who signal their support in more passive ways, such as following the groups on social media. The Facebook page of the Oath Keepers, a group of former members of police forces and the military, for example, has more than 525,000 “likes.”
The Post neglects to mention that the Southern Poverty Law Center is far left of center, with a strong socialist or communist orientation.
The movement received a huge boost from the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, where federal agents and hundreds of armed supporters of Bundy faced off in a dispute over the rancher’s refusal to pay fees to graze his cattle on federal land.
In January, dozens of armed occupiers, led by Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan, took over the headquarters buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near rural Burns, Ore., an action that resulted in the death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an occupier who was shot by state troopers.
Much of the anger arises from the activities of the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management who seem intent on driving farmers and ranchers off the land in response to radical environmentalists demanding government control of the land. The author of the article makes light of this fact, but the reality is that the federal government owns well over 51% of the land in eleven western states and is seeking to take more. Shortly after the Malheur standoff, Obama declared over 2 million acres were now federal property, in spite of the fact that the Constitution indicates that the federal government cannot own land at all except for portions in Washington D.C. plus military bases and ports.
It is also worth nothing that LaVoy Finicums death was nothing short of an execution, captured by helicopter video which showed him exiting from his truck in deep snow, with hands held wide, while three to four officers pumped bullets into him. That is hardly a justified shooting, rather it was a message to those who would defy the military and police might of the government.
Until two years ago, B.J. Soper was a creature of ESPN.
Then the TV news was filled with footage from the Bundy ranch, and he was shocked. Government officials said Bundy had been abusing grazing rights and refusing to pay his fees for two decades, so they finally sent in armed agents to round up his cattle grazing on federal land. Officials said they had shown great restraint and patience with Bundy. But to Soper, it appeared that they were bullying him.
He wondered: “Do we really have federal armed agents out there pointing guns and threatening to kill people over cows? What in the hell is going on here?”
“At that point, I had heard of Waco, Texas, and I had heard of Ruby Ridge, and quite honestly, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just a bunch of crazies up there, and they got in a gunfight with the government,’ ” he said. “But that’s not the truth.”
The more he read, the more convinced he was that the government was “out of control,” and he was amazed by the number of people who felt the same way.
“I was very disappointed with myself,” he said. “I realized that we’re here in the predicament that we’re in as a country because my generation, and my parents’ generation, have done nothing. We let this happen. We got used to our cushy lives where everything’s easy. We have forgotten what’s really important. We’ve forgotten what liberty and freedom really mean.”
Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the lead agency at the Bundy ranch, said Soper and the others have “taken an aggressive anti-federal, anti-BLM posture because of [their] bizarre and discredited interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and paranoid views of the federal government.”
“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said [Soper associate] McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”
In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said, “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”
“I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”
They have passed out more than 2,000 pocket-size copies of the Constitution that Soper said he bought for $500, sent food and clothes to victims of forest fires in Washington state and Oregon and given Christmas presents to more than three dozen needy children.
Soper bristles when critics call him anti-government; he said he supports the government but just wants it to follow the Constitution. And he said calling his group “armed” is as relevant as saying its members wear boots, because the Second Amendment gives every American the right to carry a gun.
Soper, who carries a pocket Constitution with him everywhere, said he thinks the Constitution does not give the federal government the right to own land, and that the government’s increasing emphasis on environmental regulations is putting ranchers, miners, loggers and others out of work and devastating local economies.
“We need to be able to raise and grow food,” Soper said. “Wealth comes from the land. I want to take into consideration endangered frogs. But at the same time, that frog can’t be more important than the survival of the human race.”
“I don’t know that it’s all that far-fetched that we have an economic collapse,” he said. “The dollar is a pretty scary investment anymore. China’s buying up all the gold. When people get hungry and thirsty and can’t feed themselves, they get desperate.”
In April 2015, Soper pulled on his paramilitary camouflage fatigues, picked up his AR-15 rifle and spent a couple of weeks “standing guard” at the Sugar Pine Mine in southwestern Oregon, where miners were having a dispute with the BLM.
“The government showed up and pointed guns at these miners,” Soper said. “Put yourself in their shoes. How are you going to respond? When you are in fear for your life, you have a right to defend yourself.”
It turns out that there is a big uranium deposit where the miners were working and had their claim. The BLM insisted that the miners were violating the terms of the mining agreement, but it would have given the BLM a huge financial coup to retake the land, a situation that is repeated over and over again when the BLM shows up to confiscate property.
In the case at Bundy ranch in Nevada, it turns out that the Cliven Bundy ranch abuts property owned by Senator Harry Reid, and that both properties are being considered for a giant Chinese solar farm which would provide Reid with a multi-million dollar payout. That solar farm cannot be built if Bundy is not willing to sell, which he is not. The federal government is now holding Bundy, two of his sons, and 17 others in jail for daring to challenge the federal government and the BLM.
A federal judge eventually ordered the BLM not to enforce its order until the matter could be heard in an Interior Department appeals court, where it is pending.
“The last thing I ever want to do is point a gun at another American,” Soper said. “But when the BLM picks up guns against us, when is it okay for us to defend ourselves?”
“We’re the guys that see the wolves for what they are,” Soper said as watched her bounce away. “And we want to protect the sheep.”
“People are being detained without due process,” he said. “These are not our American values.”
If Bundy and his supporters faced charges, Soper said, so should the federal agents who faced off against them: “Why should law enforcement be held to a different standard?”
“The last thing I want is violence,” Soper said. “But I hope they see that if we continue down this path, we’re going to have more bloodshed in this country.”
Soper said the answer to grievances with the government is negotiation, not violence. But he said that when federal agents draw weapons on citizens without cause, citizens have the right to answer guns with guns.
“We have the right to defend ourselves from imminent danger or death,” Soper said. “I don’t believe that excludes law enforcement. When they’re not doing their duty justly, I think you have a right to defend yourself.”
Soper kept typing, warning that the government had lost “common sense.”
“I pray we find some sense of it again, otherwise a very dark future awaits us, and it is not very far down the road,” he wrote.
“Sheriff,” he said, “people are going to die.”
Not everyone in government employ believes that the ranchers, the farmers, and others who believe in the primacy of the constitution are enemies of the state or crazies. In fact, there is a fairly large contingency of sheriffs in the west who see the huge overreach of the federal government and are anxious to stop it. Sheriffs have tremendous power in their area of responsibility and do not answer to the federal government. They are generally close to the local people and are willing to take up their cause. In fact, before he was gunned down in cold blood, LaVoy Finicum was actually enroute to meet with a sheriff in a nearby town and had advised the law enforcement officials assigned to the standoff of his intentions. They were determined to halt the insurrection, even if it meant cold-blooded murder.
The conflict is far from over. And Soper is probably right, there will be more bloodshed if the federal government continues to overstep its authority and to challenge the people. But it is not clear that the federal government will ultimately win the battle. As Piute County, Utah Sheriff Marty Gleave once stated, “I’ll deputize every man, woman and child in the county to stop what’s going on.” The federal government and elitists like the writer of the article may feel smug in their ability to bully and control the people in the west, but they may find that one of these days they will finally go beyond the limit and set off a massive insurrection. When that happens they will be hard pressed to put the genie back in the bottle, and the smugness will be wiped off of their faces.