SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said police shows of force against protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that have been compared to an invading army is boosting interest in his effort to demilitarize federal regulatory agencies.
But Stewart told the Deseret News and KSL editorial board Monday that he isn't trying to take advantage of the concerns raised by the local police reaction to demonstrations against the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old.
"I don't feel comfortable taking advantage of that and trying to sell it by saying, 'Well, look what's happening out in Ferguson, therefore, come support my bill.' I think those situations are different enough," he said.
Still, the images of a heavily armored vehicle rolling through the small St. Louis suburb while officers outfitted in battle-ready camouflage gear carry automatic weapons is having an impact.
"There's no question it's brought much more attention to the bill because of what has happened in the last few weeks in Missouri," the 2nd District congressman said, helping the public to better understand what he's trying to do.
In June, Stewart introduced what he's calling the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act in response to SWAT-style teams at various federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management.
His bill, which he said likely won't go before Congress until early next year, followed the standoff earlier this year between heavily armed BLM agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters.
"There is just no reason, I don't think, that the Department of Education, the IRS, or the FDA, or, you know, pick a regulatory agency, needs what is essentially a SWAT team," Stewart said.
He said he is not calling for BLM agents, for example, not to be allowed to carry weapons.
"They clearly need a sidearm to protect themselves. But that's different than showing up with a SWAT van and machine guns and grenade launchers," Stewart said. "I get that. We don't want to make life harder for them."
If more firepower is needed, Stewart said federal regulatory agencies should be turning to local and federal law enforcement for help rather than assembling arsenals.
His bill would prohibit federal agencies not traditionally involved in law enforcement from purchasing machine guns, grenades and similar weapons, repealing authority granted by the 2002 Homeland Security Act.
It would also require agencies to report on specialized units trained to use military tactics to respond to high-risk situations. Stewart said he has been frustrated in his attempt to get information.
Last spring, Stewart said he was one of only a few Republicans who sought more disclosure about the billions of dollars in surplus military equipment transferred to local police departments around the country.
"It was just because of this overall concern I have with not just the militarization, but with the breakdown of trust that I felt like that fostered," he said, noting his views are shared by libertarians and progressives, as well as his fellow conservatives.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder and other Utah law enforcement officials have expressed caution about how the military equipment is used. Winder has said it comes down to using common sense.
"I'm extremely sensitive to the realities that are present today," Winder recently told the Deseret News. "The thing I do not want to do is offend our community."
Stewart said he's focused on the "broader picture" portrayed by the use of such tactics.
"One of the fundamental challenges we have right now is the American people don't trust the federal government," he said. "And frankly, the federal government acts like they don't trust the American people."