|This .22 rifle is a near identical version of Marlin rifle mentioned in the Joseph Pelleteri "assault weapon" case in New Jersey. It holds 17 rounds.|
The story of Joseph Pelleteri and others like him create one of the biggest obstacles to "commons sense" gun legislation -- the fear that otherwise law abiding citizens will be snared in a law enforcement nightmare. It is that fear, embodied in the prosecutions of people attempting to navigate a labyrinthine system of regulations that dooms most gun control measures.
Imagine winning a brand new sports car with a V8 engine in a contest hosted by your local police department. You keep the car in your garage, never driving it, and one day while the cops are at your home on an unrelated issue, they arrest you. V8's you are informed were made illegal in the time between winning the car and today. You find it a bit absurd, after all, since the same police arresting you were the ones that gave you the car. You're less amused when you find out you're sentenced to jail for many years.
This sounds absurd. Surely, no one would change a law and then arrest you for breaking it. But for Joseph Pelleteri, it was no joking matter.
Pelleteri, an expert marksman who was once employed as a firearms instructor, won a contest hosted by a police department. He received, from the police, a legal Marlin semi-automatic rifle that held 17 rounds of ammunition. Several years later, the State of New Jersey amended N.J.S.A 2C:39-1(w)(4) dealing with firearms and because his rifle held more than 15 rounds, Mr. Pelleteri's rifle was subject to the "assault firearm" ban enacted in 1990. The decision in his case says that "[w]hen the police recovered the gun from defendant's residence in December 1993, it still had the manufacturer's tags and the owner's manual attached to the trigger guard."
To be clear, Mr. Pelleteri wasn't a criminal before he received this rifle form a police department. There is no indication that he had committed a crime to bring the attention of the police upon him (it is unclear in the record why police were at his home). By all accounts, he was an upstanding, law abiding member of society and this rifle, capable of holding 17 rounds was perfectly legal when a police officer gave it to Mr. Pelleteri in the 1980s. But now, it would now be the cause of his incarceration.
The Judge presiding over his case refused to even inform the jury that Mr. Pelleteri claimed he never read the owners manual and had no idea that the rifle was subject to the "assault firearms" ban and the appellate division affirmed the decision: "Defendant's failure to inspect the weapon or read the owner's manual to determine whether it fell within the statutory definition was unreasonable as a matter of law. We find no error in the trial judge's refusal to submit the issue to the jury."
The parting words of the Appellate Division give chills to gun owners: "When dealing with guns, the citizen acts at his peril. In short, we view the statute as a regulatory measure in the interests of the public safety, premised on the thesis that one would hardly be surprised to learn that possession of such a highly dangerous offensive weapon is proscribed absent the requisite license." You can read the decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division in the Pelleteri case here.
If you think this is an isolated incident in the distant past, you haven't been paying attention. Every time gun laws change and an item which has previously been legal to possess is outlawed (e.g. assault weapons or high capacity magazines), these stories reappear. And NY made many changes after the Newtown tragedy last year.