Why Are All These Government Agencies Armed to the Teeth?

Aug 13, 2014 at 1:16 PM ET

A few years ago, armed agents from the Food and Drug Administration descended on Rawesome, a popular raw foods store in the bohemian neighborhood of Venice, California, ready for a gunfight. With their weapons drawn, the officers lined up the co-op’s Birkenstock-clad patrons and frisked them beside crates of oranges and heirloom cucumbers—but it wasn’t a drug bust. The raid was part of a year-long investigation into the store’s owner, James Stewart, who was eventually arrested for selling raw dairy products that weren’t properly labeled. The 64-year-old was handcuffed and thrown into an unmarked car while officers confiscated $70,000 in organic food and dumped 800 gallons of raw milk down the drain.

Witnesses compared the operation to a narcotics raid and accused the FDA inspectors of acting like “government thugs.” How, they wondered, did federal regulatory agents have the right to wave guns around a harmless co-op?

Purveyors of organic foodstuffs aren’t the only ones concerned. U.S. Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah has called for the disarmament of civilian agencies that increasingly resemble police task forces. “It’s disturbing to see the stories of federal regulators armed to the teeth and breaking into homes and businesses when there was no reason to think there would be resistance,” Stewart said in a statement.

The shift from regulation to intimidation began in 2002, when the Homeland Security Act granted various federal agencies the right to carry guns and make arrests. As a result, agencies ranging from the Department of Education to the Railroad Retirement Board formed their own paramilitary units and stockpiled military-grade weapons—all to combat crimes that are generally non-violent.

This past May, for instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested a cache of .40-caliber submachine guns, claiming the firearms were needed to protect inspectors as they investigated crimes like fraud and smuggling. But Stewart believes such weapons are used mainly to frighten citizens, rather than protect federal agents.

“There is a reason that sheriffs are elected,” Stewart says. “They are given great power and authority, but they are held accountable for their actions. Regulatory agencies are not accountable to the people.” He adds that this lack of accountability has only helped fuel the proliferation of SWAT team-like tactics.

In response, Stewart introduced a bill in late June called the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act. The legislation would prohibit all non-law enforcement agencies from acquiring machine guns, grenades and other heavy weapons.

Aside from the Rawesome Foods raid, other recent examples of regulators’ excessive use of force include the FDA’s invasion of an Amish dairy farm in Pennsylvania that was selling unpasteurized milk, the Department of Education’s predawn offensive on the home of a California father suspected of student loan fraud and the ransacking of an elderly California couple’s home by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because they were growing undocumented orchids. That’s right, flowers. Tim Lynch, the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, isn’t surprised that regulatory agencies have embraced paramilitary tactics. After all, law enforcement agencies are using them more and more. According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there were over 800 SWAT deployments by 20 different police departments from 2011 to 2012, a development Lynch describes as “one of the most troubling trends happening today.”

Though the growing militarization of police forces hasn’t prompted legislative action, both Stewart and Lynch hope the regulatory agency bill will at least cut down on civilian raids. “These kinds of raids are becoming more routine, out of proportion and out of place,” Lynch says. “We need to get back to letters and subpoenas instead of armed confrontations.”

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