Cruz urges armed protesters in Oregon to 'stand down'

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzRight renews push for term limits as Trump takes power Dissenting nominees give hope to GOP skeptics of Trump UN leader willing to meet lawmakers amid push to cut funding MORE (R-Texas) on Monday slammed the protesters who have taken over a federal building at a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon, urging them to lay down their arms.

“Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds,” Cruz told reporters at campaign event in Iowa, according to NBC News.

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“But we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others,” he said. “And so it is our hope that the protesters there will stand down peaceably, that there will not be a violent confrontation.”

Cruz said he is praying for everyone involved in the dispute, particularly law enforcement officials who “are risking their lives.”

The protesters, led by two sons of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, broke into the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday when it was closed and no employees were present, according to The Oregonian.

The group says it is protesting the punishment of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, a father and son who are due to return to jail Monday to serve out a five-year prison sentence for arson on a nearby tract of federal land. 

The Hammonds were first given a much lighter sentence, but federal prosecutors appealed, and a higher court ordered the five-year sentence in line with a law aimed at punishing terrorists.

The protesters are part of a group that frequently protests against federal government's management of Western lands, and some of them have told media outlets that they plan to stay on the refuge for years.

The FBI told The Oregonian that it is leading a law enforcement effort to bring a “peaceful” resolution to the dispute, though the gunmen have said they are prepared to use force if needed.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday said President Obama is aware of the occupation at the refuge, but avoided speaking at length about it, calling it “a local law enforcement matter.” 

The standoff has put Republican presidential candidates on the spot, with some of them having expressed support in a similar dispute in 2014 between Bundy and the government over unpaid grazing fees.

The support for Bundy eroded when he began making racially charged statements in interviews.

Up until Monday, most of the GOP's White House contenders had refrained from speaking out on the Oregon dispute, but that is beginning to change.

Like Cruz, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Rubio19 companies that Trump has tweeted about Ex-Dem gov: I would have picked Giuliani over Tillerson Right renews push for term limits as Trump takes power MORE (R-Fla.) condemned the takeover at the refuge, though he told an Iowa radio station that he sympathizes with the movement to shrink federal land holdings.

“You’ve got to follow the law. You cannot be lawless,” Rubio told KBUR in an interview highlighted by Buzzfeed. “We live in a republic. There are ways to change the laws of this country and the policies. And if we get frustrated with it, that’s why we have elections, that’s why we have people we can hold accountable.”

Rubio lent some credit to the stated goals of the occupation, reported by local media to involve a small group of armed men with very few local residents. 

“I agree that there is too much federal control over land, especially out in the western part of the United States. There are states, for example, like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of land holding, and we should fix it,” Rubio said, adding that it shouldn’t be done “in a way that is outside the law.”

Ben Carson, another Republican candidate for the presidency, said he has “concerns” about the way farmers and ranchers are treated in the West, but said “there is nothing that justifies the armed occupation of government buildings.”

"We are a nation of laws. And that means that when we need redress from the government, we seek it peacefully,” Carson said in a statement.

Among the 2016 hopefuls, Cruz has been one of the most vocal advocates for reducing federal land ownership, along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Cruz led the charge against the Bureau of Land Management’s claims over property around the Red River in Texas, saying he wants to “protect landowners from federal overreach.”

Rubio has been less vocal about federal land ownership, but his energy policy platform calls for more local and state control over federal property for oil and natural gas drilling or other uses.

Land management is a major political issue in Western states. Nationwide, the federal government owns and manages nearly 630 million acres, with most located west of the Mississippi River.

Cruz and Rubio have increasingly clashed in recent weeks, with both seeking to overtake Donald Trump in polls of the Republican race. 

While Rubio is seeking to gain ground in New Hampshire, the first primary state, Cruz has taken the lead in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses on Feb. 1. 

- This story was last updated at 2:31 p.m.