Social Security Isn’t the Gestapo

Does this even need to be said? Apparently, yes. In what marks a high-water point for paranoid American conspiracy theories, the Social Security Administration recently put out a purchase request for 174,000 rounds of ammunition. InfoWars, eat your heart out.

The agency posted the request earlier this month on the Federal Business Opportunities website (typically where nefarious conspirators go when they’re up to no good and want to keep it quiet), specifying .357 Sig 125 grain bonded jacketed hollow-point pistol ammunition.

While initially it might seem bizarre that a non-law enforcement agency would by buying ammunition at all, the unfortunate reality is that almost every federal department that deals with monetary transfers (such as student loans or Social Security payments) has armed officers with statutory law enforcement authority in their Office of Inspector General. These agents are primarily responsible for investigations into fraud and malfeasance relating to department funds.

Moreover, OIG is responsible, along with the Federal Protective Service, for securing the department’s employees and visitors. SSA employs nearly 66,000 people at 10 regional offices and about 1,300 field offices throughout the country. Only about 300 special agents carry weapons, meaning that 174,000 rounds implies 580 per officer per year. Hardly a major arsenal, assuming agents train at least once month, and one with an apparently short shelf life: they make similar purchases every year.

Old people scare me too, but let’s not overreact.

By comparison, the 42% of American households that own a firearm purchased an estimated 12 billion rounds of ammunition in 2008. If, as the nutcases at InfoWars suggest, the Social Security Administration is “preparing for civil unrest” by rioting senior citizens angry about benefit cuts, not only are they going to be seriously outgunned, they’re going to run out of ammo in about a day and a half.

In their press release on the issue, the Administration stated:

OIG’s special agents use this ammunition during their mandatory quarterly firearms qualifications and other training sessions…the ammunition our agents use is the same type used at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

Our special agents need to be armed and trained appropriately. They not only investigate allegations of Social Security fraud, but they also are called to respond to threats against Social Security offices, employees, and customers.

While I agree that the militarization of law enforcement and the arming of otherwise innocuous government agencies (like the Fisheries Office and the Department of Education) is troubling, it does not herald a looming American Holocaust, where armies of Social Security bureaucrats execute starving pensioners in the street.

Update: I don’t want to downplay the problem of increasingly numerous of armed federal agents, but it is important to distinguish these legitimate concerns from the absurd conspiracy theories Alex Jones & Co. are floating around. The real story here is that this purchase is routine — they buy this much ammo every year. They’re not gearing up for a bloodbath, it’s just business as usual. And that’s what we should be bothered about.