Last year, the Social Security Administration put out a procurement request for 174,000 rounds of “.357 Sig 125 grain bonded jacketed hollow point pistol ammunition,” prompting a few on the Internet to work themselves up into something of a frenzy. “It’s not outlandish,” claimed Paul Joseph Wilson, one of a team of professional paranoiacs on the Infowars website, “to suggest that the Social Security Administration is purchasing the bullets as part of preparations for civil unrest.” “Something strange is going on,” harmonized Breitbart’s William Bigelow. Even Mark Levin was concerned. “I know why the government’s arming up,” he deduced. “It’s not because there’s going to be an insurrection; it’s because our society is unraveling.”
The Social Security Administration’s purchase was by no means an anomaly. A year earlier, the unlikely pair of the Department of Agriculture (320,000 rounds) and the National Weather Service (46,000 rounds) had both put out tenders for ammunition. And slightly less odd, but still staggering, were the FBI’s professed intention to purchase up to 100 million “hollow point” rounds and the Department of Homeland Security’s concurrent request for 450 million rounds. The Department of Education got in on the weapons-supplying spree, too, purchasing “27 Remington Brand Model 870 police 12-gauge shotguns.”
The first question: “Why?” The second: “Should we be worried?”
The appeal of this story is obvious, and that some citizens keep track of such things shows an admirable vigilance. But while a healthy suspicion of government serves these United States better than critics presume, facts remain the stubborn things that they always have been, and skepticism is no virtue at all when it proves impervious to reason. Those who are vexed that the state is stocking up on ammunition — and troubled by fears that this might be a step toward D.C.’s assault on the citizens for whom it works — can relax for now. Whatever the federal government has become, it is not yet plotting violence against the people.
Nonetheless, one could reasonably ask why the Social Security Administration would need any ammunition at all. Are the elderly especially unruly these days? Jonathan L. Lasher, in the SSA’s external-relations department, explained to the Huffington Post that the ammunition is “for the 295 agents” in the outfit’s office of inspector general “who investigate Social Security fraud and other crimes.” Divide the rounds by the number of agents, and you get about 590 per agent; in a given year, that’s about ten rounds a week. “Most will be expended on the firing range,” Lasher continued.
Okay. And why does the USDA need 320,000 rounds? Because it runs the Forest Service, which covers “155 national forests” and “20 national grasslands” on a total of “193 million acres of land.” As well as agents in the field, the outfit has a law-enforcement unit based in Washington, D.C., whose responsibility it is to enforce federal laws and regulations. In context, those 320,000 rounds look a lot less threatening: If the U.S. Forest Service were to distribute ammunition at the same rate as the Social Security Administration, they would have enough for just 542 agents — not bad for an organization that covers an area the size of Pakistan (or twice the size of Japan or Germany).
It’s all about scale. Forty-six thousand rounds also sound like a lot for the National Weather Service. (Actually, the ammo was requested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, which is overseen by the same department.) In reality, it’s not that much. The service has only 63 armed personnel, which brings the purchase out at around 730 rounds per officer. This, suffice it to say, does not present a great threat to the Republic. As the NRA has noted, “more than a few NRA members would use that much ammunition in a weekend shooting class or plinking session.” There are enough risks to the right to bear arms and to American liberty in general, the NRA continued, without “inventing threats.”
The FBI and DHS’s apparently vast orders are deceptively presented by the conspiracy theorists. It is true that in 2011, the FBI ordered up to 100 million bullets for its 13,913 special agents (which works out to 7,187 per agent). And, yes, the Department of Homeland Security — a composite department that oversees USCIS, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, ICE, the TSA, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the National Protection Directorate — placed a request for up to 450 million rounds for its 65,000 armed personnel (which works out to 6,923 per agent).
But in the real world, ammunition is not divided up and handed out on such a basis. What is bought is stockpiled and then allocated on the basis of need. The DHS’s order is expected to last for at least five years, and it was placed up front primarily as a cost-saving measure. Moreover, as the chief of staff to Congressman Lynn Westmoreland (R., Georgia) revealed in a press release in May 2012 that was designed to calm the fears of his constituents:
DHS entered into a contract that allows them to purchase up to 450 million rounds of 40 caliber ammunition over the next five years. They cannot exceed 450 million rounds and are not required to purchase 450 million rounds. Basically, they have a tab with a manufacturer to order more rounds as they are needed over the next five years — not a one-time ammunition order.
Think of it like “that monthly trip to Sam’s Club or Costco,” he added.
The popular claim that one in five IRS agents is armed is false, too. Only 3 percent of IRS agents — 2,725 people, to be precise — are “special agents” who work on criminal cases. Also untrue, but a popular talking point: The legions of new IRS agents expected to be hired to enforce Obamacare will be armed. I am second to none in wishing that the IRS did not exist, and that, if it must, it did not have Obamacare to enforce. But that is no excuse for fearmongering, and Ron Paul’s infamous claim that the IRS was set to hire 16,500 “armed bureaucrats” in order to enforce the new health-care law, not backed up in fact, has launched a thousand deranged e-mail chains.
And the Department of Education? The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss looked into the question of those shotguns in 2010 and received the following response from the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General:
The Office of Inspector General is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education and is responsible for the detection of waste, fraud, abuse, and other criminal activity involving Federal education funds, programs, and operations. As such, OIG operates with full statutory law-enforcement authority, which includes conducting search warrants, making arrests, and carrying firearms. The acquisition of these firearms is necessary to replace older and mechanically malfunctioning firearms, and in compliance with Federal procurement requirements.
Fair enough. But here one starts to sympathize with the malcontents. There is a world of difference between the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, or Forest Service and the Department of Education, and that there is no grand clandestine plan for the subjugation of America should by no means be taken to imply that every government action is acceptable. Questions do still abound: Whether it is in possession of one bullet or 1 million bullets, should the federal Department of Education be armed in the first place? If so, why? Should its OIG be investigating external fraud rather than handing it over to the police or the DOJ or the FBI? For those federal departments that play no role in combating domestic and foreign threats — such as the DoE — what would constitute a threat requiring armed confrontation with malefactors?
In 2011, a story about a Department of Education raid went the rounds. Initial versions suggested that the department had commissioned a SWAT team to break into a California home and arrest the estranged husband of a woman who had defaulted on her student loan. Mercifully, this was incorrect. There was no SWAT team involved, nor was the target being investigated for unpaid loans. But the reality was not necessarily much better. Instead, the DoE announced that it had conducted the raid itself, in pursuit of an American citizen that it suspected of “bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds.” It was a disaster; the suspect no longer lived in the house, a fact that special agents eventually discovered after they had smashed in the doors at dawn, thrown the occupant’s children into a police car, and kept the suspect’s (innocent) husband in handcuffs in a hot squad car for six hours.
As the local ABC affiliate reported, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, “police officers did not participate in breaking [the target’s] door, handcuffing him, or searching his home.” Instead, the Department of Education did. Judging by their ammunition purchases, the Social Security Administration and the IRS could have done so, too. That, and not fantasies about a plan to counter phantom civil unrest, is what should concern Americans.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.