Civil Liberties

45 Years, 45 Days: American Gestapo


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

From violent no-knock raids to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk searches, the use of abusive tactics by law enforcement is increasingly dominating the headlines. But as John D. Lewis, Jr. reported in Reason's April 1980 issue, the problem is nothing new:

Silver Spring, Maryland, June 1971: Four government agents in plain clothes broke down the back door of the apartment of Ken Ballew, who was in the bathtub at the time. Ballew armed himself with a pistol and prepared to defend himself. He was shot by the agents and suffered permanent brain damage and paralysis as a result.

San Jose, California, June 1978: Twenty armed government agents raided a collectors' show, for two hours allowing no one to leave. The agents photographed exhibitors and bystanders and forced everyone present to sign "warning forms ."

Charleston, South Carolina, January 20, 1977: Agents entered the home of Patrick Mulcahey and confiscated all his collectors' items, valued at $15,000. Included were a gift from his grandfather when he was 11, the first item he purchased for his collection when he was 15, and an engraved piece worth more than $1,000.

Kirkland, Washington, October 1978: In a paramilitary-style operation, government agents invaded the neighborhood of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Tungren. A four-block area was sealed off, the neighborhood evacuated, and the Tungren home surrounded. Some of the agents ransacked their home, while others stood over the Tungrens with automatic rifles.

Hardened criminals? Not quite. Armed? Well, it's true that the government agents were after firearms–but consider what kind, and the circumstances. The firearms of Ken Ballew, who assumed the intruders were criminals and so armed himself, were found to be properly registered and owned legally. The San Jose raid was at a gun collectors' show, where enthusiasts display and trade antique and choice firearms–not the kind used by criminals. Patrick Mulcahey was charged by the government with illegal possession of firearms but was acquitted in court. (Yet the government still has not returned his collection, appropriated without compensation.) The agents found a few rifles and a .22 caliber target pistol in the Tungrens' home–all properly registered. Yet those agents had come in "like a bunch of storm troopers," as Mr. Tungren described it afterwards to the press.

And the agents involved? They belong to the federal government's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. A part of the Internal Revenue Service, BATF has existed in various forms for many years. After passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the IRS'S Alcohol and Tobacco Division was given, along with bureau status, responsibility for enforcing firearms laws.