Much of the heated controversy surrounding the government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco goes straight to the heart of the feelings Americans have about our individual liberties.

The national outpouring of emotions stemming from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ botched Feb. 28 assault on the heavily armed cult reveals differing views citizens have over what it means to be an American.

And it’s all packed into 10 brief paragraphs, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution — the Bill of Rights. Americans have widely different interpretations of these original amendments. I guess that’s our right.

The 45-minute Sunday morning shootout at the religious cult’s Mount Carmel compound — Ranch Apocalypse — touched on practically every issue our Founding Fathers put into those original amendments. Religion, speech, guns, assembly, security of homes, personal security, search and seizure — it’s all there, and more.

The Bill of Rights is devoted to curbing the powers of government while giving express liberties to citizens. The First Amendment tells government to stay out of religion and don’t mess with the freedom of speech or of the press or the ability of people getting together peaceably.

Differences abound

Much of the current controversy surrounds the Second Amendment. It says: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Differences galore here.

Other Bill of Rights protections touched on in the government’s siege on the cult include the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrants can’t be issued without a darned good reason and with lots of specifics.

Also, citizens can’t be found guilty of a crime without the government jumping through a bunch of hoops to prevent innocent citizens from being railroaded. And the government can’t slap citizens with excessive bail, fines or penalties. The last two amendments say that if they forgot anything, all rights and powers go to the people and the states, not to the feds.

The 100-plus ATF assault team hit the cult compound to serve federal search and arrest warrants relating to reports of illegal weapons. Four ATF agents and an unknown number of Davidians were killed. Public protest would have been zilch had local authorities served warrants based on previous reports of cult practices of psychological and physical child abuse, sexual molestation of children, statutory rape, polygamy and phony marriages.

Changing positions

Despite the tragedy it suffered, the ATF has come under intense public criticism. Some criticism springs from historical and philosophical complaints about the ATF. But much of the criticism is because ATF officials changed their positions, stories and explanations of events following contradictory press reports often from anonymous ATF agents.

ATF officials have warned their agents to stay in line and keep their lips buttoned around the press. More disturbing, however, was a Thursday Tribune-Herald report that ATF officials leaned heavily on a private citizen who spoke to the press critically of the ATF’s handling of the Feb. 28 raid. The Waco man says he now fears the ATF more than the possibility of being on a Branch Davidian hit list.

Thus far, the ATF’s handling of this tragedy goes much deeper than possible tactical and public relations blunders. It is causing a lot of people to examine the proper balance between individual rights and government responsibilities. Perhaps that’s good.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.