Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Montana, Guns and Freedom

Last month, I was the victim of a burglary. The burglars didn't come to my home, they came to my friend's office where I had a gun cabinet stored. The cabinet, which would have provided as a sufficient deterrent to keep small kids out, was no match for real criminals intent on stealing. But in this case, I feel like I was stolen from twice.

You see, after the police captured the criminal and recovered the stolen items, they told me they wouldn't return my firearms - 11 semi-auto pistols - unless I give them the serial numbers for the guns or unless I introduce them to someone I bought the guns from. Now even if I had that information - which I don't - I would resent that statement. When I asked the officer if the criminal confessed to stealing the guns that fit the description of my guns from the office, he told me he was not at liberty to say. Instead, the officer questioned ME for about 15 minutes while I raced through traffic to catch a flight, and almost missed because I turned into the wrong parking area while talking to him.

He proceeded to ask me a litany of questions like - if I owned any other guns, why did I have so many guns in a safe in Montana, did I belong to any clubs, did I have any political affiliations, how many other guns I have and where I keep them, and if I believed that the government would confiscate my guns. He also asked me why my friend and I cleaned up the office so quickly. Now try to imagine walking into your office - after the police had already been there - and finding a broken and empty gun cabinet, the contents of three shelves and cabinets strewn all over the place, bags dumped out, boxes emptied, personal effects thrown everywhere, etc. How long would most people take to clean up such a mess? A day? A week? A month? I think most people would clean it up as soon as possible. But the detective on the case finds it very curious that we cleaned it up two days after the burglary. He also finds it curious that I had 11 guns. Now there are no scientific facts about how many guns most people in Montana have, but when Gary Marbut was researching his excellent book, Gun Laws of Montana, he conducted several anonymous audience polls and asked how many guns people owned. The only thing to be written on the paper was the number of guns owned. While unscientific, I believe it serves as a good indicator of sportsmen in Montana as one is likely to find. You might be surprised to learn that the average number was 27. So what was so curious about my having 11 locked in a gun cabinet?

While the cop was "unable to discuss" whether the criminal confessed to taking my guns, he was able to share with me that when they recovered the guns that "there were very small children there" - and he seemed to be insinuating that I was somehow responsible for that or that I might somehow have been negligent. I found this extremely disturbing, considering that I had them locked in a gun cabinet in a locked office in a locked building! The funny thing is Montana is one of the rare states that protects owners even if a stolen gun is used in a crime - the owner is NOT liable, only the one in possession, who actually commits the crime, can be held liable. In fact, thanks to Gary Marbut, author of "Gun Laws of Montana" and President of Montana Shooting Sports Association, the law now protects all gun owners in Montana from absurd lawsuits if their stolen property is used in a crime. Gary also pointed out that Article 2 section 10 of the Montana Constitution has one of the strongest Right of Privacy laws in the country - making it my RIGHT to inform the detective that the intrusive, prying, personal questions that he asked me were none of his business. In retrospect I admit that I was probably not as polite to the detective as I should have been, but under the circumstances, I thought that I was much more polite to him than I would have been to anyone else who would dare ask me such personal questions.

The bottom line is that while I still believe that Montana is one of the top two states in the country to live, to raise a family, and for freedom, that even they are not immune to problems. Maybe this cop thought he stumbled across the next Timothy McVeigh or maybe he thought I was some crazy militia guy planning to take over Montana, or maybe he was just asking questions that he felt were normal. I'll never know. The problem I have with this incident is that I was the victim of a crime and the mere fact that guns were involved and that I value my privacy made ME the focus of his investigation and not the actual criminal!

If owning guns and wanting privacy make one seem suspicious to him, perhaps he would be more at home in New York, California, Boston, or Washington, DC. Because using that criteria, about 90% of the state should be under suspicion! I haven't broken any laws, I haven't harmed a soul, I haven't whined about losing my property, and I haven't caused ANYONE any problem - but I seem suspicious to him. The worst part of all is that I can't even imagine anything that I could say or do to dissuade him from his wacky idea. How does an innocent person convince a suspicious person of their innocence when the suspicion is based on the idea that by wanting privacy and owning guns, you are suspicious? So my question is, how many people in Montana would tolerate a police detective asking them that type of questioning? Hopefully, not very many, and judging by how nice the area is, I seriously doubt that there are very many.

In fact, what keeps states like Montana free is good people like Gary Marbut, who work tirelessly to remove bad laws and change well-intentioned laws that infringe on the rights of good people. I can honestly say, that Gary himself is largely responsible for Montana having the best gun laws in the country. Unfortunately, if more people like Gary don't get involved in local politics and weed out over zealous police officers who regard the constitution as just a piece of paper (or a barometer to cause suspicion) and those who believe in it as "people to be watched", "questionable", or "curious", then before you know it, they will begin losing their freedom - just as most of the country already has. I don't dislike this officer, and I suspect that he believes that he was "just doing his job". Maybe under different circumstances we would have gotten along better. But the problem is that when police begin to bend the law, interrogate victims, and infringe upon the freedoms of honest people because they think that they can get away with it, that soon the line between right and wrong becomes blurred and the cops can become as bad as some of the criminals.

While I was there, I actually saw a policeman stop in the snow and change someone's tire. It was refreshing, but incredible! It is also noteworthy to mention that most police would probably have never even caught the criminals, let alone recover the stolen property. So obviously, the police there are far superior to most I have ever encountered, so they must be doing something right. I hope that I was just over-sensitive to the treatment that I had and that they don't have a bad apple in the bunch. Time will tell. In the meantime, I almost wish that they hadn't recovered my property. Not knowing where it was - was easier than knowing that the police are keeping it to spite me. This is exactly the type of incident that polarizes the police and other citizens and leads cops and other citizens to develop an "us vs. them" mentality. I didn't get that feeling from anyone while I was there, but I certainly didn't appreciate being treated like a criminal over the phone by this cop - who I finally hung up on and I am still waiting for him to call me back.

Now I don't expect that the folks in that town need to worry about getting tazed, beaten, or jailed for bogus charges tomorrow, but it has to start somewhere. If they will keep my property today, will they steal yours tomorrow?

Nobody wants to believe that eminent domain laws will ever happen to them, or that the police will keep their property, but I am here to tell you first hand, that it can happen. So if you lose a coat, a computer, a bicycle, a firearm, or your i Pod - make damn sure you have the serial number or else the police may decide to keep it. I wonder what their policy is on lost pets? Mayber I better brand my dog before I go back, just in case. I guess the idea of police confiscating my guns isn't so far fetched now, is it? But don't worry, this sort of thing will never happen to you... and he was just doing his job.

1 comment:

Davi's Daddy said...

not sure if this will help. California police make it equally difficult to get automobiles and such back, claiming that you need to prove to them to their satisfaction ... blah blah.

Anyway, a friend once told me that it is something of a bluff and when he insisted that they were witholding his property from him and that they would need to prove that it was someone elses that they gave him is property back. not sure how well this would work for anyone else as police get away with so much