Why is the FBI Spending $80 Million on a New Gun?

When conservatives complain about profligate federal spending, part of the problem is the sheer magnitude of the federal budget, where mere tens of millions seem hardly worth talking about in a flood of dollars, both taxed and borrowed, that is in the trillions.  That of course, allows all sorts of waste in which a few million here and there hardly seems worth fighting over.  Take for example, the FBI’s recent decision to reequip their agents with an entirely new and entirely unnecessary handgun, which will cost American taxpayers something like $80,000,000. 

The FBI has an interesting history of handgun use that is closely followed.  An important event in that history is a shootout in Miami in 1986 in which two FBI agents were killed, and several others wounded.  After the gunfight the FBI decided to reevaluate their handguns.  The gun-battle was an extremely rare occurrence in which a couple of hardened criminals decided to go down fighting with agents.  Despite being fatally wounded by agents firing a variety of weapons (.38 and .357 magnum revolvers, 9mm pistols, and shotguns) these criminals, still managed to kill and injure several before they expired.

After the Miami shootout the FBI decided that the revolvers and 9mm pistols, which were the standard issue weapons at the time, had inadequate stopping power.  After number of stops and starts in which various 9mm pistols were issued and with different ammo loads, the agency decided to switch to a new and more potent handgun that fired a 10mm round.  However, the hard recoiling 10mm round proved to be too powerful for many agents, especially as the agency incorporated more women into the ranks.  The FBI quickly abandoned the 10mm.  Reluctant to return to the 9mm round, it decided to switch to a newer round, the Smith and Wesson .40, a cartridge that fired a bullet comparable to the 10mm, but with less recoil.   

In 1997 the FBI adopted the Glock 22 and 23 pistols which fire the .40 SW.  The Glocks are excellent pistols, combining affordability, light weight, compactness (especially in the G23), reliability and accuracy.   The FBI’s decision to switch to the .40 Glock influenced police departments countrywide, and today the .40 is one of the most popular, if not the most popular pistol caliber used by American police departments, with Glock one of the most popular (if not the most popular) manufacturer for police use.  The FBI purchased thousands of Glocks.

Now the FBI has decided that the .40 Glock is no longer acceptable, and has put out the big contract for a new handgun, in -- wait for it -- 9mm.  According to the FBI, improvements in ammunition over recent years have evened out the differences between the .40 and 9mm so that it behooves the agency to return to the round it abandoned after the Miami shootout.  Of course, this being the federal government, the switch back to 9mm will mean abandoning tens of millions of dollars’ worth of perfectly good .40 Glocks and millions of rounds of ammo in stock, in favor of a new pistol, which appears will be the SIG 320, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars.  To make matters worse, Glock 22/23s can easily be converted to 9mm, so that the purchase of a new handgun in favor of the lighter round seems even more wasteful.  And even if the FBI allows agents to continue using some Glocks, or only issues the new 9mm to new agents (doubtful), the switch will cost a lot of money.  

In justifying these changes, the FBI harkens back to the Miami shootout.  But in reality, it is worth questioning whether the FBI even needs to arm most of its agents.  Today, an FBI agent is as likely to be a recent law school graduate or MBA as an experienced cop.  And most of the work that FBI agents do is not streetwise police work, but investigations where advanced degrees, technological know-how and reading comprehension matter more than skill with a firearm. 

The last FBI agent to die in a shootout fell in 1996.  In 2008 an agent was killed by random fire serving a search warrant.  The only other agent to die by a hostile act since 1996 was killed by the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001. 

Of course, the same question might be asked of the scores of federal agencies that arm special agents or other enforcement or security employees, from the Postal Service to the EPA to the Bureau of Land Management.  At least 73 federal agencies now have some kind of armed agent, and a smaller but still significant number, their own para-military SWAT teams.

Not only doesn’t the FBI need a new firearm, it probably already has many more firearms (and rounds) than it needs, not to mention all the time and energy spent training agents that have a miniscule chance of ever using their guns.  Currently, the FBI employs nearly 14,000 armed special agents.  By what rational standard is such a huge armed force required on the basis of historical or even reasonable theoretical future need?  Here are a few of suggestions that would not only save money, but also probably provide a safer and less militarized society:

  • Disarm most agents and designate a small number of skilled and highly trained shooters to accompany other agents in particularly risky situations, or just have the shooters handle such matters, e.g., making arrests, serving warrants, etc., or
  • Designate the FBI as the sole civilian federal agency to conduct investigations and security tasks that the government requires, including protecting the President and other high officials—certainly the Secret Service has not covered itself in glory recently.  This would consolidate training, arms and ammunition purchases and training, create more uniform standards for agents, and eliminate rampant duplication and excess expense, and
  • Audit all the federal agencies with armed agents, including the FBI to determine just how necessary these personnel are the federal mission.  This should include historical data on the just how frequently, and in which circumstances, armed special agents have actually been exposed to hostile action or had any justification for drawing or using their weapons.  

If President Obama and the Democrats really want to reduce the number of handguns in the country, they could start with their own employees.  That would be an executive order that a lot of fiscal conservatives could get behind. 

I have no expectation that such a thing will ever be done or even seriously considered.  This multiplicity of unnecessary costs to the taxpayer must run into the billions, but we have become so used to huge federal budgets that even ten digit expenses hardly raise an eyebrow.  And by those standards, the mere high eight digit number that it will cost to replace the FBI’s current handgun will hardly be noticed, buying weapons and ammo for thousands of agents who do not need them, and will almost certainly never use them.     

When conservatives complain about profligate federal spending, part of the problem is the sheer magnitude of the federal budget, where mere tens of millions seem hardly worth talking about in a flood of dollars, both taxed and borrowed, that is in the trillions.  That of course, allows all sorts of waste in which a few million here and there hardly seems worth fighting over.  Take for example, the FBI’s recent decision to reequip their agents with an entirely new and entirely unnecessary handgun, which will cost American taxpayers something like $80,000,000. 

The FBI has an interesting history of handgun use that is closely followed.  An important event in that history is a shootout in Miami in 1986 in which two FBI agents were killed, and several others wounded.  After the gunfight the FBI decided to reevaluate their handguns.  The gun-battle was an extremely rare occurrence in which a couple of hardened criminals decided to go down fighting with agents.  Despite being fatally wounded by agents firing a variety of weapons (.38 and .357 magnum revolvers, 9mm pistols, and shotguns) these criminals, still managed to kill and injure several before they expired.

After the Miami shootout the FBI decided that the revolvers and 9mm pistols, which were the standard issue weapons at the time, had inadequate stopping power.  After number of stops and starts in which various 9mm pistols were issued and with different ammo loads, the agency decided to switch to a new and more potent handgun that fired a 10mm round.  However, the hard recoiling 10mm round proved to be too powerful for many agents, especially as the agency incorporated more women into the ranks.  The FBI quickly abandoned the 10mm.  Reluctant to return to the 9mm round, it decided to switch to a newer round, the Smith and Wesson .40, a cartridge that fired a bullet comparable to the 10mm, but with less recoil.   

In 1997 the FBI adopted the Glock 22 and 23 pistols which fire the .40 SW.  The Glocks are excellent pistols, combining affordability, light weight, compactness (especially in the G23), reliability and accuracy.   The FBI’s decision to switch to the .40 Glock influenced police departments countrywide, and today the .40 is one of the most popular, if not the most popular pistol caliber used by American police departments, with Glock one of the most popular (if not the most popular) manufacturer for police use.  The FBI purchased thousands of Glocks.

Now the FBI has decided that the .40 Glock is no longer acceptable, and has put out the big contract for a new handgun, in -- wait for it -- 9mm.  According to the FBI, improvements in ammunition over recent years have evened out the differences between the .40 and 9mm so that it behooves the agency to return to the round it abandoned after the Miami shootout.  Of course, this being the federal government, the switch back to 9mm will mean abandoning tens of millions of dollars’ worth of perfectly good .40 Glocks and millions of rounds of ammo in stock, in favor of a new pistol, which appears will be the SIG 320, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars.  To make matters worse, Glock 22/23s can easily be converted to 9mm, so that the purchase of a new handgun in favor of the lighter round seems even more wasteful.  And even if the FBI allows agents to continue using some Glocks, or only issues the new 9mm to new agents (doubtful), the switch will cost a lot of money.  

In justifying these changes, the FBI harkens back to the Miami shootout.  But in reality, it is worth questioning whether the FBI even needs to arm most of its agents.  Today, an FBI agent is as likely to be a recent law school graduate or MBA as an experienced cop.  And most of the work that FBI agents do is not streetwise police work, but investigations where advanced degrees, technological know-how and reading comprehension matter more than skill with a firearm. 

The last FBI agent to die in a shootout fell in 1996.  In 2008 an agent was killed by random fire serving a search warrant.  The only other agent to die by a hostile act since 1996 was killed by the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001. 

Of course, the same question might be asked of the scores of federal agencies that arm special agents or other enforcement or security employees, from the Postal Service to the EPA to the Bureau of Land Management.  At least 73 federal agencies now have some kind of armed agent, and a smaller but still significant number, their own para-military SWAT teams.

Not only doesn’t the FBI need a new firearm, it probably already has many more firearms (and rounds) than it needs, not to mention all the time and energy spent training agents that have a miniscule chance of ever using their guns.  Currently, the FBI employs nearly 14,000 armed special agents.  By what rational standard is such a huge armed force required on the basis of historical or even reasonable theoretical future need?  Here are a few of suggestions that would not only save money, but also probably provide a safer and less militarized society:

  • Disarm most agents and designate a small number of skilled and highly trained shooters to accompany other agents in particularly risky situations, or just have the shooters handle such matters, e.g., making arrests, serving warrants, etc., or
  • Designate the FBI as the sole civilian federal agency to conduct investigations and security tasks that the government requires, including protecting the President and other high officials—certainly the Secret Service has not covered itself in glory recently.  This would consolidate training, arms and ammunition purchases and training, create more uniform standards for agents, and eliminate rampant duplication and excess expense, and
  • Audit all the federal agencies with armed agents, including the FBI to determine just how necessary these personnel are the federal mission.  This should include historical data on the just how frequently, and in which circumstances, armed special agents have actually been exposed to hostile action or had any justification for drawing or using their weapons.  

If President Obama and the Democrats really want to reduce the number of handguns in the country, they could start with their own employees.  That would be an executive order that a lot of fiscal conservatives could get behind. 

I have no expectation that such a thing will ever be done or even seriously considered.  This multiplicity of unnecessary costs to the taxpayer must run into the billions, but we have become so used to huge federal budgets that even ten digit expenses hardly raise an eyebrow.  And by those standards, the mere high eight digit number that it will cost to replace the FBI’s current handgun will hardly be noticed, buying weapons and ammo for thousands of agents who do not need them, and will almost certainly never use them.