The 4 Biggest Standoffs in U.S. History


This summer marks the 20th anniversary of one of America’s most infamous police sieges: Ruby Ridge. In 1992, several hundred U.S. Marshals Service and FBI agents participated in a 12-day standoff with Randy Weaver, his family, and a friend on his property in Idaho. At the time of the siege, Randy Weaver was wanted for associating with people who had threatened the government, selling illegal sawed off shotguns to an agent, and being involved in the Aryan Nation. Weaver barricaded himself on his property with weapons and refused to surrender.

On August 21, 1992, agents went to Ruby Ridge to scout out where they could ambush and arrest Weaver away from the cabin. Weaver’s son, Sammy, and the family friend, Kevin Harris, emerged from the cabin with a dog and ran into the Marshals on a trail about 500 yards from the cabin. A firefight erupted, killing one of the Marshals, Sammy, and the dog. This event triggered the standoff, which involved several hundred federal agents and ultimately resulted in the sniper killings of Weaver’s wife, Vicki, who was standing, unarmed, in the cabin doorway, holding her baby at the time of her death. Randy Weaver was also shot by the same sniper, but survived. Eventually, Weaver and Harris surrendered and the rest of the children were taken into custody.

The case caused outrage amongst much of the public because of errors in the evidence against Randy Weaver and what was considered gross mishandling of the standoff, especially the killing of Vicki Weaver. It has provided much ammunition for anti-government conspiracy theorists. Ultimately the Senate subcommittee report concluded that the rules of engagement used at Ruby Ridge were unconstitutional.

Ruby Ridge isn’t the only major siege the U.S. has seen and, at times, mishandled in the last few decades, though. Here are a few others:

Wounded Knee

In 1971, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who sought to raise awareness and address issues affecting Native Americans, including poverty, housing, police harassment, and treaty issues, marched on Washington D.C. and seized the national headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a 20-point list of demands of the federal government. In 1973, AIM led a protest of 300 activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the Indian massacre in 1890. The protesters took over the area and made several demands to the federal government, which the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and National Guard Units responded to by cordoning off the area, resulting in a 71-day siege. Gunshots were exchanged several times, and the siege was eventually ended by tribal elders when two AIM members were shot and killed. A U.S. Marshal was also shot and paralyzed.

Montana Freemen

The Montana Freemen were a group of Christians who declared themselves exempt from the authority of the federal government, believing in individual sovereignty. They created their own government, currency, common law court, and banking system in “Justus Township,” Montana, and committed financial crimes, including the use of counterfeit checks, and an attempt to buy $1.4 million of body armor and firearms on the U.S. District Court’s account. In 1994, the Freemen’s property was foreclosed upon, but they refused to leave. In 1996, the FBI arrested two of the group’s members and went to get eight more, but an armed standoff occurred that ended up lasting 81 days. Eventually, the siege ended without violence.

Waco Siege

Perhaps the most infamous police standoff in U.S. history was the 51-day, 1993 siege against David Koresh at the Branch Davidian ranch in Waco, Texas. It began with an attempt by ATF to serve a search warrant, based on allegations of sexual misconduct and the stockpiling of illegal weapons, which resulted in a two-hour gun battle during which four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. The FBI then began the siege, interestingly putting the same man who had mishandled Ruby Ridge, Richard Rogers, in charge of the Hostage Rescue Team. During the siege, 25 FBI negotiators spoke with Koresh to try and resolve the situation. Eventually, 19 children between the ages of 5 and 12 were released safely, but 98 Branch Davidians remained in the compound, including 25 more children.

Tactics by the FBI became increasingly aggressive, including cutting water and power to the compound, and the use of sleep-disrupting noise pollution. As time went on, the FBI became concerned about the deteriorating conditions, that children were being abused inside the compound, and that there was a chance Koresh would coordinate a mass suicide. Authorization was given to mount an assault. The FBI used tear gas to try to force the Davidians out of the compound without gunfire. The Davidians opened fire, and the FBI responded with grenades and other military rounds. After several hours, three fires broke out in the building where the Davidians were located and the people inside were either prevented from leaving or refused to. In the end, 50 adults and 25 children under 15 perished from fire, gunshots, or being buried in the rubble. Questions remain with regard to who shot first and whether the siege was mishandled by the FBI.