USDA feeling heat for packing heat
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2014 - Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, wants to know why the Department of Agriculture's Inspector General's office needs machine guns to do its job.
A request submitted by the OIG shows a solicitation for semi-automatic or two-shot burst submachine guns that fire .40-caliber Smith & Wesson ammunition. It also specified that Tritium night sights be included, along with rails for flashlight attachment, a scope, a collapsible or folding stock, 30-round magazines, sling, and oversized trigger guard for gloved operation. The agency says the firearms are meant to replace “firearms in OIG's inventory that are 15-20 years old (or older).”"
The document - posted in early May - does not specify the number of weapons, but a background memo on the OIG website says a contract for 85 firearms was awarded Sept. 9. Through OIG Deputy Council Paul Feeney, the agency declined to comment on the cost of the firearms or when it would receive the order. A gun dealer who spoke with Agri-Pulse said a submachine gun equipped to USDA's specifications could probably be purchased for $2,000-$2,500 directly from a manufacturer.
"I understand that federal agents must be capable of protecting themselves, Stewart said. “But what we have observed goes far beyond providing necessary protection. When there are genuinely dangerous situations involving federal law, that's the job of the Department of Justice, U.S. Marshals and local law enforcement."
In response to USDA request, Stewart introduced the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act, which seeks to remove the firearm authority granted to Offices of Inspectors General in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. (OIG's website says the agency was granted law enforcement authority not in the 2002 Homeland Security legislation, but rather in the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981).
Stewart's bill, which has 31 cosponsors, would also prevent agencies not charged with traditional law enforcement from purchasing weapons regulated under the National Firearms Act. It would also require an audit on the issue from the Government Accountability Office. In an e-mail to Agri-Pulse, Stewart said arming different agencies of numerous departments not only shows distrust in American citizens, but is costly and duplicative.
In the firearms procurement memo, OIG says it handles an average of 800 criminal investigations a year. From fiscal year 2011 through July 31, 2014, OIG says its investigations resulted in 2,800 indictments, 1,900 convictions, and $615 million in investigative monetary results. OIG special agents are issued a standard duty weapon - a handgun - and required to carry it at all times on official duty. The heavier firepower would be used only in circumstances that “are deemed as high risk for danger,” such as cases where agents have been threatened during the course of their investigations.
Bloggers and consumer groups are also voicing their concern with the USDA armament. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund has posted an online petition that it is encouraging citizens to send their concerns to their congressional representatives. That petition encourages the support of Stewart's RAD Act, and says armed backup should come from agencies better equipped dangerous situations.
“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,” The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund said on its website. “Having in-house SWAT teams and armed personnel makes it too easy to turn a non-hazardous situation into an armed raid that abuses the rights of our citizens.”
Stewart said it is currently difficult to ascertain how frequently agencies use specially armed teams and what kinds of weapons they possess. He said a GAO report that looks into the “SWAT-like teams” employed by some agencies “might be relevant to understanding the usefulness and justification for the units."
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