Contentious Federalism: Sheriffs, State Legislatures, and Political Violence in the American West


Despite the extensive literature probing individual motivations for committing political violence, little existing academic research directly examines the role of local governments in encouraging political violence. I use a federalism perspective to consider how subnational governments can decrease the perceived costs of high-risk political violence against the state. This paper introduces three novel datasets to substantiate my theories: political violence against Bureau of Land Management employees, land transfer legislation in state legislatures, and a roster of constitutionalist sheriffs. As emblems of the contentious relationship between rural land users and the federal government, employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) routinely deal with threats, harassment, and physical violence from civilians who are incensed by restrictions on the use of federal land. Counties with constitutionalist sheriffs are 50%  more likely to have violence against BLM employees than other counties, even when controlling for other factors. Additionally, levels of political violence are higher in years following the passage of land transfer legislation in the state legislature. Elected officials’ legislative activity, campaign promises, and law enforcement decisions all may promote political violence against federal employees. Incorporating federalism into the study of political violence uncovers how the actions of elected officials at the state and county levels can lower the perceived costs of violence against the national government.

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  1. 1.

    The government’s current modus operandi is to yield the monopoly on violence to citizens. In the 1990s the government responded aggressively in two citizen standoffs which created a public relations catastrophe. Ever since, the government is reluctant to use force against citizens, especially in the West where memories of Ruby Ridge and Waco are prominent (Lind 2016).

  2. 2.

    It is already known that subnational governments can be instrumental in preventing or stopping political violence. For example, previous accounts of the Jim Crow South find that the absence of sheriffs increase lynchings (Clarke 1998).

  3. 3.

    Constitutionalist sheriffs interpret the U.S. Constitution such that the federal and state government authorities are subordinate to county governments.

  4. 4.

    The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 created a permit system for the federal government to lease grazing land to ranchers while preventing overconsumption of the natural resources. Permits are distributed in animal unit months (AUMs) and change annually based on weather, natural disasters, and demand. For example, a rancher may own 100 cattle and receive 1200 AUMs 1 year (full grazing privileges), but only 700 AUMs the following year creating a difficult situation of owning cattle but having no land to graze them.

  5. 5.

    Reagan’s delivery on this promise began and ended with appointing Sagebrush ally and fervent anti-environmentalist James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Watt resigned in 1983 after describing a department coal leasing panel as “I have a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple. And we have talent.”

  6. 6.

    People of higher socioeconomic status have an easier time getting policy concessions from politicians because they turn out to vote at higher rates (Rosenstone 1982), are more likely to stay abreast of political affairs (Downs 1957), and can use their money to influence politicians through donations (Schattschneider 1960; Bartels 2008; Gilens 2012; Schlozman et al. 2012).

  7. 7.

    For example, numerous western state legislators travelled to Oregon to show support for the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 (Maughan 2016).

  8. 8.

    Alternatively, land transfer legislation could act as a steam valve for political frustrations. If constituents have grief or anger about the federal land ownership in their community, the passage of land transfer legislation may assuage their frustrations by demonstrating that their legislators are working to solve this problem. Someone who would otherwise commit political violence against an BLM employee may choose to trust that political institutions and processes will remedy the problem upon learning that the state legislature is working to transfer lands from federal to state ownership. If the steam valve theory is correct, we would expect rates of political violence to be lower in year following the passage of land transfer legislation.

  9. 9.

    Sheriffs are elected in all states except Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Rhode Island. Sheriffs are elected at the county-equivalent level in states that do not have counties, i.e., Louisiana sheriffs are elected at the parish-level.

  10. 10.

    The direction and significance of the coefficients are the same in a probit specification.

  11. 11.

    For the event county model I use a negative binomial specification to account for over-dispersion in the data. The negative binomial distribution includes an extra parameter to correct for over-dispersion, in contrast to the Poisson model which assumes the dispersion parameter is equal to 1.

  12. 12.

    The Freedom of Information Act allows citizens to request federal agency records or information.

  13. 13.

    PEER filed FOIA requests for “A summary of all incidents of violence, threats, or harassment against BLM employees that occurred in calendar year [x]. The summary should include the date, location, and nature of the incident or threat together with a summary of what, if any, outcomes stemmed from the incident or threat (e.g., arrest, conviction, ongoing investigation).”

  14. 14.

    To illustrate, for many years the federal government has been controlling the prolific wild horse population by rounding up horses for adoption or slaughter. The Rock Springs, Wyoming BLM office received a threatening email pertaining to the wild horse protocol, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TO DO THIS, THE ILLEGAL SAFARI CLUB?…FUCK YOU GO TO HELL WHERE U BASTARDS DESERVE AFTER YOU HAVE BEEN TERRIFIED TORTURED AND HUNG UPSIDE DOWN” (Bureau of Land Management 2013). A second example is a physical assault described by a female Forest Service ranger as, “He started getting even more upset and said oh your just another one of those BLM sluts who think you can do whatever you want to make all our recreation go away. So what is your job I bet you don’t even know. I answered him to protect the forest health and manage the lands and that is why the Quagel Mussel are an issue and pose a huge problem to the drinking water systems… He said your just one of those environmental bitches who just think that you know it all well you don't know anything that everything is just fine you are just as stupid as the BLM.”

  15. 15.

    I restrict the sample to the 11 western contiguous states where the vast majority of BLM land and offices are located (see Fig. 1). I exclude 14 incidents because they took place outside of these states. Additionally, I exclude 37 incidents unrelated to political violence, such as Burning Man debauchery and harassment from fellow BLM employees. Finally, 6 incidents photocopied too poorly to read and 15 incidents had location descriptions too vague to locate the county.

  16. 16.

    In my search for a list of land transfer legislation, I contacted the following academic, political, and public interest organizations: American Constitution Society, American Legislative Exchange Council, Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Western Priorities, Coalition for Self-Government in the West at the Sutherland Institute, High Country News, Idaho Freedom Foundation, National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, National Conference of State Legislatures, and The Property and Environment Research Center.

  17. 17.

    In 2014, the CSPOA briefly published a list of 485 sheriffs who vowed to uphold the organization’s mission. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center uncovered at least a dozen listed sheriffs who claimed to have never heard of the CSPOA, so it is likely false positives are on the list (Potok and Lenz 2016). I expect the leadership position list to contain fewer false positives than the 2014 member list because, assuming the CSPOA wanted to inflate the number of members, there is a limit to the number of plausible leadership positions for an organization.

  18. 18.

    Constitutionalist sheriffs covered in the news may have stronger anti-federal convictions or have created more publicity for their political beliefs than any constitutionalist sheriffs not covered in news articles. If there is a systematic difference between the observed and unobserved constitutionalist sheriffs, I suspect constitutionalist sheriffs without news coverage have smaller average effect on political violence than sheriffs who spread or endorse anti-federal beliefs through the media. For this reason, any missing observations of constitutionalist sheriffs bias my results upwards and future research should seek better identification strategies.

  19. 19.

    Roll call data for all land transfer bills 1995–2015 show higher levels of support from Republican legislators than Democratic legislators.

  20. 20.

    For example, in 2015 the CSPOA worked alongside extremist-group militia members in Montana and Oregon to obstruct federal authorities from closing two mines located on federal land after their government permits were not renewed (Potok and Lenz 2016).

  21. 21.

    I calculate turnout by averaging sequential midterm and presidential elections to account for the difference in turnout between presidential and midterm elections. For presidential election years, turnout was averaged with the midterm election from two years prior. For midterm election years turnout was averaged with the presidential election two years prior. For odd-numbered years, turnout is measured as the average of the previous presidential election and the previous midterm election.

  22. 22.

    I do not include Republican partisanship, Tea Party partisanship, and population in the final cross-sectional or time-variant models because their inclusion does not achieve significance nor change the other coefficients.

  23. 23.

    The vast majority of the population in San Bernardino County lives in cities on the edge of Los Angeles and Orange counties.


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This paper would not have been possible without Laura Dumais (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) and Tay Wiles (High Country News) who generously shared the political violence incident reports. I thank the three anonymous reviewers and editors, Thad Kousser, Seth Hill, Zoli Hajnal, Dan Butler, Charles McClean, Taylor Carlson, and Luke Sanford for invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Replication files are available at

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Correspondence to Zoe Nemerever.

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Nemerever, Z. Contentious Federalism: Sheriffs, State Legislatures, and Political Violence in the American West. Polit Behav 43, 247–270 (2021).

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  • Political violence
  • Federalism
  • Sheriffs
  • Public land
  • State legislatures