Here’s the situation in brief: Gordon van Gilder is a 72-year old retired English teacher who lives in New Jersey. He also happens to have a hobby collecting 18th century memorabilia: coins, furniture, etc. Along came the opportunity to buy an antique 18th-century pistol. No bullets or powder, just the pistol. He and a friend drove to Pennsylvania to get it and then, on the way back, they were stopped by New Jersey police. Mr. Van Gilder cooperatively told the officer of the weapon in the glove box, and the officer promptly wanted to arrest him for violating New Jersey gun laws — for an antique pistol that wasn’t working. A superior talked some sense into the officer and told him to return the firearm and let the two men go. You’d think that would be the end of it, right?
Per Charles Cooke, think again:
The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilders says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.’” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”
“I’ve never been handcuffed in my life — or arrested, even,” Van Gilder explains. “I was embarrassed and ashamed. The only prisoner there was myself: a 72-year-old English teacher. I was really ashamed.”
Before long, Van Gilder had been charged and the gun had been taken away for “ballistics testing,” almost certainly never to be returned. (That the department believes that a ballistics test on a flintlock pistol can be useful should give you some indication of who we’re dealing with here.) “They’ve angered me,” Van Gilder concedes. “But technically, by New Jersey’s law, the officer was probably right.”
The officer may have been right, but the law that officious jerk was enforcing is an ass. Now Mr. Van Gilder is facing a possible ten-year sentence with a minimum of 3.5 years without parole.
Remember the Obama administration’s risible claim that it had “prosecutorial discretion” to not enforce immigration law over a whole class of people? That was bunk, but here is a case where discretion should have been applied by by New Jersey authorities to refuse to prosecute a case that was clearly never contemplated under the state’s gun laws. Leave aside the fact that those laws violate Mr. Van Gilder’s Second Amendment rights, the very idea of humiliating him and then facing him with mandatory jail time over an antique pistol the federal government doesn’t even regard as a weapon is infuriating.
Earlier this week, the lawyers’ group blog Popehat noted caustically that “none of the New Jersey founders who ratified the Constitution when this pistol was crafted would have questioned the man’s right to keep it.” This is indisputably true. Indeed, the news that an arthritic septuagenarian retiree had been tied to a bench for a non-violent crime would presumably have shocked them to the core. But, for all that their words live on, those leaders are dead, and we must look now to the ones that we have today. Where the hell are they? Where are the voices crying out for a change in the rules, and for a restoration of basic American liberties? And above all, where is the fearless Chris Christie — a man who seems to want to be president of the United States — when one of his constituents is being harassed by the state?
That’s a darned fine question, and I’d be very interested in would-be President Christie’s answer.
PS: As Cooke’s editors point out, you can help out with Mr. Van Gilder’s defense here.
PPS: And this isn’t the first time New Jersey prosecutors have tried to curb-stomp the Second Amendment.