A Republic, If You Can Keep It

Queen Anne Pistol Creative Commons“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” goes the phrase often, and likely erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson. It’s most likely an abbreviated version of Ireland’s apparently dreamy John Philpot Curran‘s “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

Whatever it’s provenance, the phrase is meant as a warning to the citizens of a free state to jealously guard and protect their freedoms against any government encroachment as the natural tendency of government is to slide toward tyranny. The state of New Jersey, bulwark of the American way and whatnot, has a different reading of things.

Lately it seems that it is the power of the state to regulate in absolute terms, with no regard to mitigating factors or mercy, the behavior of those unlucky enough to find themselves within it’s jurisdiction that New Jersey busies itself to jealously protect.

The current threat to our republic on the receiving end of The Garden State’s eternal vigilance is 72 year old retired English teacher, antique collector, and alleged illicit gun owner Gordon Van Gilder.

What is alleged is not whether he’s guilty of carrying a concealed weapon with out a permit. As to that, Van Gilder told National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, “I did break the law – to my shock.” And according to the state’s archaic gun laws, he is correct. What is alleged is that the object he was carrying, a Queen Anne single shot flintlock pistol manufactured in Belgium circa 1760, would meet any modern definition of a weapon. But for having the antique in his possession, scofflaw Van Gilder is being charged with a second degree felony and faces a minimum of three and a half years if found guilty in a court of law. The maximum sentence is ten years, no doubt a comfort to the 72 year old.

Mr. Van Gilder arrived in his present predicament when, in November of last year he enlisted a friend to drive him – Mr. Van Gilder apparently has arthritis in his arm and thus was unable or disinclined to drive himself – to meet an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania who had come in possession of the pistol. It should be noted that Mr. Van Gilder is not a gun collector so much as a collector of items from the 18th Century.

New Jersey FlagAfter purchasing the Queen Anne (apologies to aficionados if I should be referring to it by another name) from the dealer for $800 the two set back to New Jersey where they were eventually pulled over. Threatening to bring in a dog if they refused, the officer asked “permission” to search the vehicle. Permission was granted, but when the officer was informed that the antique was in the glove compartment wrapped in cloth he reacted unexpectedly and wanted to arrest the collector. A call for guidance by the officer to his supervisor resulted in the pair being released and in possession of the two hundred and fifty odd year old object.

Things should have ended there but amazingly the next day three police cars pulled up to Van Gilder’s home, he was arrested, and later shackled hands and feet to a metal table in the police station.

I could understand if the officer had brought them in immediately after pulling the two men over. He may not be familiar with pre-revolutionary weaponry. We live in a litigious society. If someone were to be harmed and it became known that given the chance he failed to take the weapon off of the street he might lose his job or worse. In that scenario you would expect discussions back at the station, realization of how ridiculous the whole situation was followed by an apology and release. But the opposite happened.

Draco-The-LawgiverGiven time to deliberate the wisdom and justice of arresting an arthritic septuagenarian for possessing a museum piece handgun almost four times older than he is, it is the opinion of the State of New Jersey that Van Gilder is too dangerous to remain in the general population.

In an exquisitely comical turn, the police sent the Queen Anne single shot flintlock pistol, which fires a ball by the way, for ballistics testing.

Which brings us back to the alleged nature of the gun. According to the federal government it’s not a weapon at all. That’s because the Queen Anne is basically a metal tube that gets packed with gunpowder, a metal ball, and requires a flint struck to provide a spark for ignition. Packing the gun and getting it set to fire its single shot takes about a minute. By all reports I’ve seen, Mr. Gilder had neither powder, ball, nor flint.

What he had was scarcely different from a metal pipe with one sealed end. Given the age of the gun, any attempts at firing it would be unwise. Even if you were to successfully fire it, would the results be that much more devastating than if the ball were shot from a slingshot?

As absurd as it may be, according to legalinsurrection.com, New Jersey laws “explicitly include antique firearms such as this 300-year-old pistol.” And, in case you were wondering, “Indeed, possession of a slingshot is a felony under New Jersey law.”

To those that hope that New Jersey officials will dismiss this case as a matter of prosecutorial discretion as is their want, remember that this is a state that pressed on with the prosecution of Shaneen Allen, the single mother with no criminal record who mistakenly believed her Pennsylvania gun permit was valid in New Jersey, until media and popular pressure forced them to drop the case. Ms. Allen languished under the threat of a minimum of three years in prison for ten months despite her infraction resulting from what all agreed was an innocent mistake. It should also be noted that, though I know nothing about her legal career, the chief prosecutor overseeing Mr. Van Gilder’s case is not exactly know for her discression. 

Finally, a question. How is this law banning pre-revolutionary weapons constitutional? All but the looniest advocates of gun control will admit that the second amendment plainly allows for possessions of muskets and other weapons contemporary with the founding. In fact, many hang their hat on the belief that the founders, having no way of knowing that the MAC 11 or Saturday Night Special or other fruit of the technological Pandora’s Box would come to be, would have put reasonable limits on the capacity for force the average citizen should be allowed. A bunk argument, but it does allow that the founders plainly came down on the pro side of ball and powder single shot firearms. Not so New Jersey.

To their credit, it is possible that prosecutors are mindful that the last time this particular Queen Anne was fired it may have been in service of a rebellion that usurped the previous government of New Jersey, among other places. Perhaps in their mind, they are protecting the Republic from insurrection. “Fool me once.” so they say.

If you would like to donate to Gordon Van Gilder’s defense fund follow the link here. Unfortunately, as any plea bargain in which he cops to a lesser charge may cause him to lose his pension, the charges will have to be dropped or beaten and, as they are written, he did break the law despite his (shared) belief that, as he told the NRA, “the law is an ass.”

And where the hell is presidential aspirant Chris Christie in all of this? Someone should tell him that people are watching, vigilantly.


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