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The Pros And Cons From The Gallery At The Bundy Trial

Carol Bundy, left, wife of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, speaks with supporters outside of the federal courthouse, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Las Vegas.
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Carol Bundy, left, wife of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, speaks with supporters outside of the federal courthouse, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Las Vegas.

The first of several trials of defendants in the 2014 armed standoff at Bundy Ranch has begun.

In opening statements, defense attorneys said the defendants were expressing their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Prosecutors say they were unlawfully threatening federal agents who had been ordered to remove cattle from the ranch of Cliven Bundy.

Longtime Las Vegas columnist John L. Smith is taking it all in and gives his perspective on the pros and cons of arguments from both sides.

On who is on trial:

“These six men are not Nevada residents. From what I was able to glean prior to this trouble that they find themselves in, they have no criminal records. They heard about Cliven Bundy’s troubles outside of Bunkerville. Their politics and philosophies being similar to his. They decided to drive from Idaho, from Montana and from Arizona to join the protest.”

However, Smith points out the six defendants - Gregory Burleson, Orville Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Richard Lovelien, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart - are also accused of bring high-powered rifles and pointing them at federal agents.

And he points out that none of the defendants are considered the "main event." The headliner of the whole case, the Bundy clan, aren't scheduled to go to court until later this year. 

What is the prosecutors are arguing:

"Prosecutors argue that by not only bringing guns to a protest, which the defendants can argue would be their Second Amendment right to do so, they menaced BLM and Forest Service officials. They pointed guns at them. They positioned themselves on what Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre called the “high ground” and the bridge."

"And in a very dramatic opening statement, Myhre went into great detail about how the tension grew, how the crowd grew louder and more abusive, and how the few dozen armed agents of the federal government carried out a court-ordered removal of impounded cattle. How their lives were endangered. How they felt fear and intimidation as these gunmen moved in and out of the crowd and then at some point took positions of superior tactile advantage over the government agents. That’s the argument. That’s not in evidence yet, but that’s the argument the government is making.

What the defense is arguing:

"In opening statements, defense attorneys raised the issue of the public's safety and that it was the government who appeared to be the aggressors. That Sheriff Doug Gillespie, at the time, had said that the BLM was standing down, the crowd of protesters believed it and wound up crossing the highway and wound up in a confrontation that could have been avoided.  

Smith was in court for both arguments. He's not necessarily buying either argument at this point, but he believes it shows a clash of world views.

On which side made the best argument:

"Here’s the bottom line: on April 12, 2014, it was an enormously tense situation and as Myhre put it, ‘one car backfire, one accidental discharge of a firearm and there would have been a shootout or potentially a shootout that could have cost literally dozens of lives.’ This was an area where citizens had marched to, where government officials and law enforcement agents were and it was just a hair from being set off." 

"The drama of it is intense, but from a legal standpoint the defense argued and will continue to do so, that this is about First Amendment rights, being able to protest. This is about Second Amendment rights, being able to bring a gun to a protest if you want to. That they weren’t trying to menace government officials that they were acting in effect to try to protect the crowd because they thought the government was going to do something." 

Smith explained that there is a lot of evidence to go through and a lot of witnesses so it could be weeks before the trial is finished. 


John L. Smith, contributor 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.