WASHINGTON — Schools may be gun-free zones, but the U.S. Department of Education is locked and loaded.
The agency put in an order this month for 27 new short-barreled shotguns to replace some of its aging arsenal.
You didn't know that the Education Department had an arsenal?
The department and other federal agencies have weapons because the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and some earlier laws empowered agents in their offices of inspector general to carry firearms.
More than just eagle-eyed numbers crunchers poring over records for waste and fraud involving federal tax dollars, special agents for the inspectors general actually hit the streets to round up the bad guys.
"Major (inspectors general) not only perform audits and review the efficiency of federal programs, they also conduct extensive criminal investigations," said Paul Feeney, a spokesman for the inspector general at the Department of Agriculture. "Many people may not be aware of the dangerous circumstances that agents may encounter."
The 100 inspector general agents at the Education Department are spread between headquarters in Washington and the inspector general's 10 regional offices — in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., Sacramento, Calif., and Long Beach, Calif.
The agents have all undergone law enforcement and weapons training. Normally they carry .40-caliber Glock pistols. The shotguns come out when they execute search warrants and make high-risk arrests.
Indeed, some of their targets have had violent criminal pasts, according to information provided by the department. However, the agents never have discharged a weapon in the line of duty, the department said.
The Remington 870 12-gauge, 14-inch barrel shotgun ordered by the Education Department is a police favorite. The round's velocity is slow and it spreads out, increasing the chances of hitting the target "in a dynamic, tense situation," said Jim Pasco, the executive directive of the Fraternal Order of Police.
It's also extremely loud.
"Even people who have never been around one before, when they hear an 870, they know something bad is about to happen," Pasco said.
With the country pretty sour on Washington right now, the notion of agencies involved in education and agriculture buying weapons has drawn a predictable reaction on the Web.
It ranges from paranoid — "(President Barack) Obama is arming all the government agencies," wrote one author — to dismissive: "What could these be for?" a contributor to one interactive forum asked. "Putting down rebellions at lunchtime?"
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