Saying armed federal agents are intimidating average citizens, U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth says she’ll soon introduce legislation to require agents to get written permission from a local sheriff before carrying firearms.
“They shouldn’t be armed unless they’re deputized by the local sheriff,” she said.
Lemhi County Sheriff Brent Barsalou, who lambasted U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents for “bad manners” in confronting a local rancher, called Chenoweth’s proposal “a bad idea whose time has come.”
“I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when you have to mandate cooperation,” he said.
Chenoweth appeared in Boise on Friday at an often emotional hearing on “excessive force” by federal law enforcement. She was gathering testimony for Congress’ “Task Force on Firearms Legislation and Second-Amendment Rights,” appointed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. About 170 people attended, including Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa and Lt. Gov. Butch Otter.
“How can we trust a government which would make war on its own people,” said Otter, “to make peace with our enemies?”
The testimony was filled with references to the Randy Weaver case, confrontations with agents on public land and government helicopters. One dissenter even invoked the name of Claude Dallas. More than 15 members of the United States Militia Association attended.
Critics called the hearing little more than onesided cheerleading.
“The only use of federal excessive force I’ve seen so far is the use of excessive political force by Congresswoman Chenoweth to stack a hearing in order to prop up her own political fortunes,” said Mark Solomon, vice president of the Idaho Conservation League.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, target of much criticism at the hearing, said it didn’t have adequate time to prepare for formal testimony. But in a letter, acting regional director Thomas J. Dwyer cited numerous U.S. environmental laws granting federal agents authority to carry firearms, serve warrants and make arrests.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s firearms policy requires all agents to carry a service sidearm when engaged in law enforcement duties away from their offices, unless circumstances dictate otherwise,” Dwyer wrote.
Singled out for special criticism at the hearing were the “SWAT”-style teams of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and U.S. Marshals’ Service.
“Why does every federal agency in the country seem to feel it needs its own SWAT team wanna-bes?” said Mark Pollot, director of Stewards of the Range Constitutional Law Center in Boise.
“These elite teams believe they are above the law,” said Garry Gilman of Boise, one of the attorneys who defended Randy Weaver after the standoff at Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin. “The wolf has come in among the flock and it’s time to put a leash on him.”
Such talk seems ludicrous to Carol Bachelder of Boise, a housekeeper who is a self-described gun-control supporter and environmentalist.
The reason federal agents carry firearms, she said, is simple: people like Dallas.
A self-proclaimed “mountain man” in remote Owyhee County, Dallas shot and killed two Idaho Fish and Game agents investigating poaching in 1981. He is serving a 30- year prison sentence in Kansas. Dallas claimed he fired in self defense, but a jury convicted him of manslaughter because he fired bullets into the heads of the wounded men as they lay unconscious on the ground.
“The citizenry has guns,” she said. “I believe the government is afraid of the people, because the public is armed.”
Bachelder thinks it’s equally ludicrous for Chenoweth to try to reel in federal law enforcement authority. Agencies like the FBI, she pointed out, were formed to fight crime crossing state boundaries.
“They (federal agents) don’t have to wait for an engraved invitation. They have jurisdiction,” Bachelder said. “Are we not a nation of law and order?
“We’re learning through hearings like this not to respect authority, to question it - and to take up arms against it.”
At the same time, she said, there are good reasons for enforcing environmental laws.
“These people are deeply concerned with protecting individual rights,” she said. “I’m more concerned with protecting the land.”
Sitting in the audience, Boise computer draftsman Dave Knight said he completely ignored politics until two things happened: the Weaver incident and the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
“My concern for the tyranny of the federal government brought me here,” he said. “And I mean tyranny.”
Now, Knight has joined the militia association and frequently voices his concerns to the Idaho congressional delegation.
“I’m not going to wait for it to happen to me,” he said.