Firearms and Arrest Authority of U.S. Federal Agencies

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More than a few eyebrows were raised in 2010 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought 85 semi-automatic submachine guns. However, the USDA is just one of 73 federal government agencies employing full-time law enforcement officers who are authorized to carry firearms and make arrests in the United States.

Brief Overview

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' latest (2008) Census of Federal Law Enforcement Officers, the combined federal government agencies employ about 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers who are authorized to carry firearms and make arrests. That is roughly the equivalent of 40 officers per 100,000 U.S. residents. By comparison, there is one member of the U.S. Congress per 700,000 residents.

Federal law enforcement officers are authorized by law to perform four specific functions: conduct criminal investigations, execute search warrants, make arrests, and carry firearms. From 2004 to 2008, the number of federal law enforcement officers with arrest and firearms authority grew by 14%, or about 15,000 officers. The federal agencies also employ nearly 1,600 officers in the U.S. territories, primarily in Puerto Rico.

The Census of federal law enforcement officers does not include data on officers in the U.S. Armed Forces, or the Central Intelligence Agency and the Transportation Security Administration's Federal Air Marshals Service, due to national security restrictions.

The number of federal law enforcement officers has increased rapidly in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Their ranks grew from about 88,000 in 2000 to about 120,000 in 2008.

Front Line Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

Excluding 33 Offices of Inspectors General, 24 federal agencies each employed more than 250 full-time personnel with firearm and arrest authority in 2008. Indeed, law enforcement is the main function of most of these agencies. Few people would be surprised to see field agents of the Border Patrol, FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, or the Secret Service carrying guns and making arrests. The complete list includes:

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (36,863 officers)
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons (16,835)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (12,760)
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (12,446)
  • U.S. Secret Service (5,213)
  • Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (4,696)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (4,308)
  • U.S. Marshals Service (3,313)
  • Veterans Health Administration (3,128)
  • Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation (2,636)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (2,541)
  • U.S. Postal Inspection Service (2,288)
  • U.S. Capitol Police (1,637)
  • National Park Service - Rangers (1,404)
  • Bureau of Diplomatic Security (1,049)
  • Pentagon Force Protection Agency (725)
  • U.S. Forest Service (644)
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (598)
  • National Park Service - U.S. Park Police (547)
  • National Nuclear Security Administration (363)
  • U.S. Mint Police (316)
  • Amtrak Police (305)
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs (277)
  • Bureau of Land Management (255)

From 2004 to 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) added more than 9,000 officers, the largest increase at any federal agency. A majority of the CBP increase occurred in the Border Patrol, which added more than 6,400 officers during the 4-year period.

At the Cabinet department level, component agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, employed about 55,000 officers or 46% of all federal officers with arrest and firearms authority in 2008. Agencies of the Department of Justice (DOJ) employed 33.1% of all officers, followed by other executive branch agencies (12.3%), the judicial branch (4.0%), the independent agencies (3.6%), and the legislative branch (1.5%).

Within the legislative branch, the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) employed 1,637 officers to provide police services for the U.S. Capitol grounds and buildings. With full law enforcement authority in the area immediately surrounding the Capitol complex, the USCP is the largest federal law enforcement agency operating wholly within the nation's capital.

The largest employer of federal officers outside of the executive branch was the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC). The AOUSC employed 4,696 probation officers with arrest and firearm authority in its Federal Corrections and Supervision Division in 2008.

The Not-So-Obvious Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

In 2008, another 16 federal agencies not so typically associated with police powers employed fewer than 250 full-time personnel with firearm and arrest authority. These included:

  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing (207 officers)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (202)
  • Food and Drug Administration (183)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (149)
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (145)
  • Federal Reserve Board (141)
  • U.S. Supreme Court (139)
  • Bureau of Industry and Security (103)
  • National Institutes of Health (94)
  • Library of Congress (85)*
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (84)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (62)
  • Government Printing Office (41)
  • National Institute of Standards & Technology (28)
  • Smithsonian National Zoological Park (26)
  • Bureau of Reclamation (21)

* The Library of Congress Police ceased operation in 2009 when its duties were assumed by the U.S. Capitol Police.

Most of the officers employed by these agencies are assigned to provide security and protective services at the agency's buildings and grounds. Officers employed by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors provide security and protective services only at the Board's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Officers serving at the various Federal Reserve banks and branches are hired by the individual banks and were not counted.

And the Inspectors General

Finally, 33 of the 69 federal Offices of Inspectors General (OIG), including the Department of Education's OIG, employed a total of 3,501 criminal investigators with firearms and arrest authority in 2008. These 33 Offices of Inspectors General represent all 15 Cabinet-level departments, as well as 18 other federal agencies, boards, and commissions.

Among other duties, officers of the Offices of Inspectors General often investigate cases of improper, wasteful, or illegal activities, including theft, fraud, and wrongful use of public funds.
For example, OIG officers investigated the General Services Administration's outrageous $800,000 "team-building" meeting in Las Vegas, and a series of scams being perpetrated against Social Security recipients.

Are These Officers Trained?

Along with training they may have received in the military or other law enforcement agencies, most federal law enforcement officers are required to complete training at one of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) facilities.

In addition to training in basic to advanced law enforcement, criminology, and tactical driving, FLETC's Firearms Division provides intensive training in the safe handling and justifiable use of firearms.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Firearms and Arrest Authority of U.S. Federal Agencies." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 21). Firearms and Arrest Authority of U.S. Federal Agencies. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Firearms and Arrest Authority of U.S. Federal Agencies." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).