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The federal trial for Cliven Bundy and his sons is now underway. Bundy is the Nevada rancher accused of leading an armed standoff in 2014 against federal agents over control of public lands. Jury selection began today in Las Vegas for the trial against the Bundys and a militiaman who came to support them. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the trial could be an important signal one way or another to anti-government militants.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Cliven Bundy's battle against the federal government goes back decades. Descendants of Mormon pioneers, his family has refused to recognize the federal government or its ownership of millions of acres of public land in the West. It all came to a head in April of 2014 after the rancher defied numerous court orders to remove his cows that had been grazing on public land for free.
SIEGLER: Armed Bureau of Land Management officers came to round up Bundy's cows and were met by armed militia. The agents were forced to stand down. Here is an emboldened Ammon Bundy, Cliven's son, in a YouTube video.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMMON BUNDY: We're going to kick the BLM out of the state, kick all the other federal agencies out of the state.
SIEGLER: The standoff inspired Ammon Bundy to lead an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. He and the other militants were later acquitted. But along with his father, he's been in custody in Nevada for a year and a half awaiting this week's trial. The men are accused of, among other things, conspiring against the U.S. government and assault on a federal officer.
JOHN MOORE: They were a hundred percent right in what they did.
SIEGLER: John Moore is a former Libertarian state legislator in Nevada and friend of the Bundys.
MOORE: There is a serious amount of government overreach in general, and especially here in Nevada when it comes to our lands. And I'm a firm believer that it's the state's land, not the federal government's.
SIEGLER: A litany of prior court rulings and treaties actually reinforces that federal control. Bundy's supporters have also argued that the standoff was just a protest and that guns were only drawn in self-defense. This could be a tough argument to make now before a jury in Las Vegas, which is still reeling from the shooting massacre at a country music festival. Motions by the defense to get the Bundy trial moved were unsuccessful.
IAN BARTRUM: This is a - kind of a bad time in Las Vegas to be talking about the Second Amendment in sort of glowing terms.
SIEGLER: Ian Bartrum is a law professor at UNLV. Until now, he says, the Bundys have depended on sympathetic juries, capitalizing on the anxieties and mood of the country right now. But Bartrum says if there's anything that's consistent with the Bundys, they're unpredictable.
BARTRUM: Their claim has changed, right? It goes from there being no federal government to there's a federal government and it protects my right to bear arms to waiving the Constitution around when it's the Constitution that's really their problem.
SIEGLER: This case all began as a fight about public lands, but it quickly attracted all sorts of people who had nothing to do with ranching - far-right Internet talk show hosts, conspiracy theorists, a kind of precursor to the anti-establishment movement that supported Donald Trump. Here's how Bundy family friend Shawna Cox put it to me.
SHAWNA COX: Just like President Trump said, we're going to give this control of the government back to the people where it belongs.
SIEGLER: So this case is about a lot more than ranching on public lands, and the stakes are high. If Cliven Bundy is acquitted in Nevada like his sons were in Oregon, will others interpret it as being OK to take up arms against the government when they don't like a land policy?
VICKIE SIMMONS: I seen him riding around here after that in a Cadillac, and he had bodyguards.
SIEGLER: Near the Bundy ranch in the desert east of Las Vegas is the Moapa River Reservation. The vice chair of the tribe here, Vickie Simmons, believes the Bundys are guilty. She says the Bundys and their militia never respected her people. And Simmons can't help but wonder what would have happened if Native Americans had been the ones pointing guns at federal officers that day.
SIMMONS: He needs to pay for it. That was wrong what he did, and they shouldn't let anybody else think that they can do that either. Nobody should be able to do that and pull out their guns and threaten and scare everybody the way they did.
SIEGLER: Were those guns drawn to threaten federal land managers who were trying to do their job and enforce the law? Or was it merely in self-defense, an act of protest? That's the question facing the jury. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.