The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, have spawned a heated and, one hopes, productive debate about the “militarization” of the police. While one can argue about the tactics and weaponry used by police, however, there’s little debate about the necessity of cops being armed. The real problem is the thousands of agents in federal regulatory bodies who likely have no business being armed at all.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 1973 there were 507 federal criminal investigators, excluding those in federal departments with explicit law enforcement duties such as Treasury, Justice, and Defense. By 2011, the ranks of armed federal agents in civilian regulatory agencies had swollen to 3,812. In 1973, the forerunner to the Department of Health and Human Services had exactly one armed investigator. Today, HHS has 686 criminal investigators—more than any other agency. Even the Peace Corps now has four criminal investigators in-house.

Of these thousands of investigators, a great many are armed. The Department of Education, Railroad Retirement Board, and dozens of other federal agencies have their own SWAT teams. In May, the Department of Agriculture put in a request to procure .40 caliber submachine guns. The hazard here should be obvious—as Homer observed millennia ago, “iron by itself can draw a man to use it.” And sure enough, in recent years we’ve seen a spate of uses of force by regulatory agencies.

Last October, the EPA examined the paperwork of a family-owned mining operation in Chicken, Alaska—population seven—by showing up in flak jackets and M-16s, provoking outrage among members of Congress. Thanks to a recent regulatory change, the FDA is no longer required to get a court order before seizing food it deems unsafe. The result has been multiple armed raids on sellers of raw milk, including a health food store in California and an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania—twice. In 2011, a SWAT team from the Department of Education kicked down a man’s door at 6 a.m., handcuffed him, locked his three kids in a police car for hours, and ransacked his house because his estranged wife was suspected of student loan fraud. A federal SWAT team raided the studio of an Atlanta deejay in 2007 in an attempt to enforce copyright laws, though the suspect was apparently uninvolved in any commercial piracy. And so on.

Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah, has proposed a remedy to the problem of zealous and violent federal enforcement entitled the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act. The bill would freeze weapons purchases by civilian agencies, who would then have 90 days to justify their need for “specialized units that receive special tactical or military-style training,” along with detailing the weapons they possess, the cost of maintaining such units, and the circumstances under which they have been deployed. Agencies would have to issue such reports annually. The bill would also negate a 2002 law that empowered 60 inspector general offices to arrest suspects.

Stewart’s bill has 28 cosponsors, and industry groups such as the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance—perhaps wary of being on the business end of a .40 caliber submachine gun—are supportive. “If agency officials face a situation in which armed backup is truly called for, they can go through the proper procedures to have support from the Department of Justice,” they noted in a July 29 press release.

Stewart’s bill is a sensible way to begin to limit what seems to be too much regulatory enforcement at gunpoint. Surely the growing ranks of armed federal agents are one of the least defensible aspects of our runaway administrative state. When the Founders wrote the Second Amendment, they considered all Americans as potential members of the militia largely as a response to the fact that the crown had empowered special militias who often served their own aims rather than the public interest. It should not be surprising that when federal agencies have largely unchecked power to impose their will with their own little militias, it leads to abuse. It’s an abuse that shouldn’t be hard for Congress to stop.

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