Ammon Bundy and his co-defendants have been found not guilty of most of the federal conspiracy charges related to their occupation of the wildlife refuge in Oregon. This decision was reached regarding conspiracy to impede federal officers, the possession of firearms in a federal facility, and theft of government vehicle. The jury was unable to reach a verdict about theft of cameras at the facility. The Bundys still face trial in Nevada over a previous 2014 standoff.
As pointed out in an article by The Washington Post, the acquittal on the firearms charge seems strange, though the specific charge was that the defendants possessed guns “with the intent that it ‘be used in the commission of a crime.’” If the jury didn’t regard the other actions as having criminal intent, perhaps that explains this particular decision.
And all of this raises the question of jury nullification. This concept has a long history in our nation, the idea that juries have the power to find a defendant not guilty if they believe the law is unjust or has been unfairly applied. Examples of this in the past have included decisions to ignore the law with regard to the Alien and Sedition Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and Prohibition. However, there is also a history of all white juries refusing to convict defendants charged with crimes against blacks. As always when discretion is involved, we’re left to debate the trustworthiness of the people who decide, rather than addressing a principle.
The concept of jury nullification reminds me of the John Adams remark that our Constitution only works when it governs moral people. Though I’ve criticized the Bundys for taking the wrong approach to protest in the past, there is a measure of smugness — dare I say privilege — that I and others need to avoid in telling people with a grievance against our government or some other aspect of society exactly how they will be allowed to express their discontent.
There is another protest going on now that tests our fairness, the resistance to a proposed pipeline across what members of the Standing Rock Sioux regard as tribal land in North Dakota. The objections here are over the specifics of sacred sites and water, but just as with the Bundy protests, all of this gets tied up in the conflicts of the western U.S. that have been going on throughout our history — who owns the land and what is underneath it and flowing over it? How do we square the rights of the people who were here originally with the rights of those of us who came later? And what will we do to balance the needs for using resources now with the need to conserve those same resources into the future and maintain a planet that is inhabitable?
Protest is disruptive. It has to be, since it’s a statement against the settled order. And in a nation that was founded on the idea of people saying no to the leaders of their society, it’s hypocritical for us to seek to shut down all resistance to power. Protest reveals the concerns of people who are often ignored, and while we may have to arrest protestors to remove them from roads, government buildings, and so forth, restraint is the best approach, and the not guilty verdict in the Oregon case is a good example of the jury recognizing that.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.