By Timothy Cama and Devin Henry - 01/04/16 05:50 PM EST
Leading Republican presidential candidates are condemning the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and distancing themselves from the gunmen.
Republican Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: 'I didn't run for the Senate to run for president again' Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval O'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' MORE (Fla.) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson all took to the campaign trail on Monday to denounce the gunmen.
“Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds,” Cruz said in Iowa, according to NBC News.
“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.”
The White House on Monday sought to downplay the controversy, with press secretary Josh Earnest avoiding a lengthy discussion and calling it “a local law enforcement matter.”
The comments seemed designed to prevent an escalating showdown with the activists, who appeared to be hungry for a conflict with federal officials.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” protestor Ammon Bundy told CNN by phone. “We have no intentions of using force upon anyone. If force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.”
Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy, along with about 300 supporters, broke into the building Saturdaynight, when it was closed and no employees were present, as a protest to what they see as unlawful ownership of land by the federal government and in support of the Hammonds, according to the Oregonian.
The Bundys are sons of Cliven Bundy, who rose to fame last year when armed men came to his Nevada ranch to stave off federal officials wishing to kick him off federal land for about $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., centers on Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced to five years in prison after a fire they set on their own land burned federal property.
The FBI is coordinating the response to the incident with local police and the county sheriff, but the agency said in a weekend statement that it wouldn’t publicly release details about how it intends to defuse the situation.
Local media reported that Burns residents haven’t seen a heightened police presence even though they told The Associated Press that they were concerned about violence from the militiamen at the compound.
Asked about the fight, Rubio sympathized with the movement to reduce federal property holdings but asked that it not be “lawless.”
“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.”
Carson also cited “concerns” about the vast federal estate but said there is “nothing that justifies the armed occupation of government buildings.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who met with local FBI leadership this weekend, told local reporters that the agency is following the situation “literally by the minute.” He urged citizens who might be inclined to oppose federal land policies to resist groups like those at the Malheur refuge.
“I understand why rural Oregonians are so frustrated about this economy,” he said. “But the next step from frustration is not to walk off a cliff, misled by some outsiders who seem willing to take the law into their own hands.”
James McCarthy, a Clark University geography professor who studies the history of Western land, said disputes like the one in Oregon have a history about as a long as European settlement of the West.
“This kind of rhetoric is, in some ways, a real staple of American political discourse. These kind of claims and framing of the issues around federal lands and the relationship with the federal government have been going on for 100 years or more,” he said.
This includes major movements such as the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, destruction of federal property and vehicles by activists and threats against land managers.
“To my knowledge, actually taking over a government building and threatening violence against anyone who tries to move you out is new as a tactic in these particular kinds of federal lands conflicts,” Mccarthy said.
Outdoors activists are pushing politicians of all stripes to condemn the group’s actions and make it clear they support public land policies and officials.
“Politicians, one, need to condemn the violence and the rhetoric, but they also need to not hide behind silence,” said Jessica Goad, the advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities who has written reports on extremism among anti-government protesters in rural parts of the country.
“They need to be out in front on this,” she said. “This is not a way to solve problems in a democracy, no matter what your political party or no matter what your perspectives.”
Goad said she fears that these disputes could lead to even more heightened tensions between government officials and the activists opposing them.