A decade ago when I came to this job, I carried into it all the prejudices about law enforcement of the average American. It was stuff that I learned from TV and from movies and I had to de-educate myself.
Sometimes the de-education process came at the advice of friendly veteran officers. Sometimes it was the result of something I learned while pursuing a feature article. Regardless, I learned very quickly that if someone is given the responsibility of a badge and a gun by our government then they deserve respect, no matter how unusual their assignment.
And I've met some officers with some pretty unusual assignments: railroad police, Nevada gaming police, alcohol control officers, park police, and game and fish officers, just to name a few.
Now I have to admit that the first time I interviewed a game and fish officer, I really didn't show him the proper respect. I was researching a story on backup gun policies, and I thought I needed to talk to urban officers, but somebody suggested I speak with this guy out in Montana. So I reluctantly gave the federal wildlife officer a call.
Few interviews have helped me understand the perils of a specific law enforcement assignment more than this conversation. In the course of about 20 minutes, this officer explained that unlike the average urban officer, almost every person he contacts in the course of his work day—whether they are fishing or hunting—is carrying a firearm. While most of the people this officer meets are just sports enthusiasts who obey the law, some have bad intent. And his nearest backup is more than 50 miles away.
That's why the recent news that Congress is considering a bill that could strip federal fish and game officers of their firearms struck a nerve with me. It's another example of civilians not realizing the dangers faced by these dedicated officers.
The bill in question is called the FOCUS (Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures) Act of 2012. It was introduced last month by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and quickly co-sponsored by Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and James Risch (R-Idaho).
Ironically, the FOCUS Act, which is about limiting government overreach may be overreaching. The stated purpose of the FOCUS Act is to dial back the enforcement powers granted to the federal government under the Lacey Act.
The Lacey Act is a 1900 conservation law that prohibits trade in "illegal wildlife, fish, and plants." Many people support the basic foundation of the Lacey Act, but Congress can't leave well enough alone. There were amendments in 1935, 1969, 1981, 1988, and 2008. The 2008 amendment extended the term "illegal" to include plants and animals that are harvested outside of the laws of other countries. The result is a law that allows the government to shut down Gibson Guitar Corp. for using wood that was "illegally logged" in Madagascar and India.
Because the Gibson Guitar case is so controversial, the FOCUS Act has a lot of support among conservatives. But few of those supporters are aware of what I believe are unintended consequences of modifying or repealing the Lacey Act.
According to Jon Adler, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), the FOCUS Act would remove the legal authority for federal wildlife officers to carry guns.
And let's be clear here. We are not talking about game wardens that spend all of their time preventing Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo from stealing picnic baskets. We are talking about crime fighters, sheepdogs who could be defanged, even though their jobs are some of the most dangerous in federal law enforcement.
An FBI study of assaults on conservation law enforcement officers found that officers enforcing natural resource and environmental laws were nine times more likely to be attacked with a dangerous weapon than other officers. Remember what that federal wildlife officer told me years ago: "Almost everyone I contact is carrying a firearm and my nearest backup is 50 miles away."
I don't believe that stripping brave law enforcement officers of their guns is the purpose of the FOCUS Act. And I believe the proposed law can be adjusted by the Senate to make sure that it doesn't harm federal wildlife officers.
I urge you to write, call, or e-mail the offices of Sen. Paul and the other sponsors of the FOCUS Act and express your concern for your fellow officers. They need their guns.