Justice to look at federal agency guns

The Justice Department is updating a report on how armed the federal government is.

It will be the first time Justice has addressed the topic in six years, and it comes as conservative and libertarian complaints about an excessively gun-happy government have intensified.

The issue was central to the recent controversy generated by a stand-off between right-wing rancher Cliven Bundy and agents from the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.

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Bundy and his supporters argued an armed federal government threatened too much force in a dispute over grazing and public lands. But critics of Bundy worry that the decision by federal and local officials to back off in response to armed resistance by Bundy and his supporters could embolden self-styled militia groups.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) will undertake this year’s report. It will begin surveying federal agencies about how many of their agents carry guns and have the authority to make arrests in July, according to the author of the 2008 version Brian Reaves.

It is not clear when the data will be finalized, though the final release could take until early 2015.

Six years ago, the Justice Department found that 73 government agencies employed about 120,000 armed agents.

The 2008 report found that four out of five armed federal agents belonged to branches of the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security, but the other 20 percent were spread out among dozens of agencies that are not as well known for their law enforcement activities.

Not only is the FBI armed. So too are members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Postal Service (USPS), Railroad Retirement Board, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to the report.

Until recently, even the Library of Congress employed an armed unit.

From 2004 to 2008, the government added about 15,000 armed agents, the earlier Justice report found. During that time period, an additional eight agencies began employing armed units.

That’s angered libertarian groups who question the need for some of those agencies to be armed. They argue the government is increasingly arming itself.

“Hey, if you don’t bring that book back, we’re coming for you,” joked Larry Pratt, executive director of the conservative Gun Owners of America.

Earlier this month, the office of inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would be acquiring submachine guns.

That prompted Bob Owens to write on the Bearing Arms website that it was “part of a trend to arm every branch of federal government, whether the individual agency has a legitimate need for a paramilitary force or not.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) in a May 21 letter wrote USDA expressing concern about the purchase, and asking for more information. He said he was worried USDA was straying from its mission.

The department has said that officers with the USDA Office of Inspector General after often armed as they are investigating crimes including fraud, smuggling and theft of government property.