The Slatest

Are FBI Agents Allowed to Bring Their Guns on the Dance Floor?

There’s not exactly a law against it.

FBI agent shooting Denver bar.
Photo illustration by Slate

An off-duty FBI agent appears to have shot someone while dancing at a Denver distillery last weekend. Video footage shows the agent’s gun falling from his rear waistband when he makes a nifty back handspring; as he picks up the weapon, it appears to discharge. A fellow partygoer was hit in the lower leg, and Denver police are now investigating. How against-the-rules was it for the agent to bring his gun onto the dance floor?

There’s no law against it, exactly. Anyone can bring a gun into a bar or nightclub in Colorado, provided the establishment does not specifically forbid firearms from the premises. At the same time, state law makes it a Class 2 misdemeanor to possess a firearm while “under the influence of intoxicating liquor,” and it’s generally a very poor idea to bring a gun into a cocktail venue known for its “generous pour.” It’s not yet clear whether the FBI agent in Denver was drinking before the shooting.

When FBI agents are on duty, they aren’t subject to local gun-carry laws. They’re also expected to carry their weapons unless there’s a specific reason not to. The agent involved in the dance-floor incident is likely to have been off-duty, though. (Otherwise he must have been deep undercover.) If so, it would have been up to him as to whether to carry his weapon when he went out.

Any unintentional discharge of an FBI agent’s firearm leads to an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility at the Department of Justice. For many accidents, such as those that occur at the shooting range, perhaps while an agent is cleaning his or her weapon, the OPR inquiry might result in a letter of censure. An unintentional discharge that occurs in a public setting—let alone one that wounded a bystander and might have involved alcohol—would lead to more severe punishment. An agent might get “time on the beach” (i.e., suspended) or be fired.

Even if an off-duty agent weren’t drinking or doing handsprings, the decision to bring a gun into a nightclub could merit an investigation for poor judgment or unprofessional conduct. Former Republican member of Congress and ex-FBI agent Michael Grimm was the subject of an OPR investigation following a 1999 incident at the Caribbean Tropics nightclub in Queens, where one eyewitness claimed to have seen him brandishing his firearm while saying, “I’m a fucking FBI agent, ain’t nobody gonna threaten me.”

Off-duty FBI agents who fire their weapons inappropriately may also face criminal prosecution. In 2016, a pair of G-men from Las Vegas traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, on assignment. While in town, they ate dinner at a steakhouse and ordered 228 ounces of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. (In terms of alcohol content, that’s the equivalent of about 30 regular cans of beer.) Later that night, when police approached one of the agents at a Planet Fitness, he pulled out his weapon and fired three shots at an officer. The agent’s attorney would argue that he’d suffered an “alcohol-fueled paranoia attack while at the gym.” Nevertheless, the agent was fired from the FBI, and he pled no-contest to a charge of felonious assault.

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Explainer thanks Denver criminal defense attorney Douglas Richards, David M. Shapiro of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Steve Surowitz of the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.