Friday, September 05, 2008

Author faces a decade in prison for nonviolent firearms violations

Prolific writer Peter Manso, author of, among other books, biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, has been indicted on a dozen firearms charges by a Massachusetts grand jury and faces years in prison. Did he brandish a gun in public? Threaten a neighbor with a drive-by shooting?

No, the guns were all stored, quite securely, in his locked and alarmed home. In fact, police discovered the weapons only when they responded to a burglar alarm while the writer was away. Either the guns were in plain view -- evidence that Manso expected no legal trouble for their possession -- or else, as Manso's attorney alleges, "Truro police searched Manso's house illegally while responding to the alarm." (The Times of London reports they were "in a cupboard.") The mindboggling criminal charges for mere possession of inanimate objects are reported by the Boston Globe as follows:
Manso was indicted on charges of illegally possessing a large capacity weapon (a Colt AR-15 assault rifle), four counts of illegally possessing loading devices for that weapon, three counts of illegally possessing firearms, one count of illegally possessing ammunition, and three counts of improperly storing a firearm, according to a spokeswoman for Plymouth prosecutors.

The most serious charge, illegally possessing the assault rifle, carries a minimum sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison and a maximum of 10 years in prison. No date has been set for Manso's next court hearing.

The main problem seems to be that Manso's Firearms Identification Card expired after the passage of new legislation in 1998 -- previously, FIDs lasted a lifetime; now they expire every six years. The new law has caused endless problems in the Bay State, since authorities have not been very effective about informing gun owners of the change. As the Globe reports, "In July 2002, a State House committee found that thousands of Massachusetts residents were probably unaware that they needed to renew fire identification cards."

The "assault rifle" is a separate issue, since that's just outright illegal in Massachusetts. Still, Manso is in good company in its possession. In Can Gun Control Work?, James B. Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, reported that Boston's assault weapons ban has enjoyed a rousing compliance rate of about 1%. Challenged by a law that seems purely arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive (banned assault weapons are mechanically indistinguishable from many perfectly legal firearms), large numbers of Americans simply shrug their shoulders and symbolically tell legislators to go fish.

Of course, heavy-handed law enforcement is nothing new to Massachusetts. When I went to college there in the 1980s (Clark University in Worcester, if you must know), the string of ominous billboards along the highway as you crossed the border was a running joke: Speed Limit Strictly Enforced, Possession and Use of Radar Detectors Illegal, Gun Laws Strictly Enforced ... "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" would have been a fitting final warning, followed by a roadblock and a vigorous strip-search.

But a potential decade in prison for merely possessing a mechanical device is more than a joke: it's a deprivation of a man's freedom for doing nothing that caused any harm to people or property.

Manso claims that he's been maliciously targeted by the police because of his controversial work on a new book that casts a skeptical look at the work of local authorities in investigating the murder of a writer named Christa Worthington. I don't know whether there's any truth to his claim, but the sort of technical charges he faces lend themselves to such abuse. The more intricate and technical the law becomes, the harder it is to understand, respect and abide by. It's irresistably tempting for many people to ignore the law's sillier restrictions, and all too easy to unwittingly fall behind in paperwork -- at the cost of years behind bars if a local official wants to be by-the-book about such things. And, of course, offending local officials then comes to carry a hefty penalty in terms of selective enforcement of arcane law.

Strictly speaking, the recent Heller decision should have made these charges impossible. By finally recognizing that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, the Supreme Court ostensibly put the right to bear arms on the same footing as the right to free speech -- and you can't require people to get a license to speak their minds, nor can you ban high-capacity printing presses. But we're still exploring the full implications of that decision, and Heller was worded loosely enough that it may permit restrictions of the sort that we would never permit to be applied to any other individual right.

So Peter Manso faces a potential life sentence (he's 67) for doing no harm to anybody by violating laws that few respect and even fewer understand and thereby making himself vulnerable to officials who may be out to get him. In a free country, that's not how the law is supposed to work.


OH: Teen's death self-defense: "Judge John West on Thursday found Antonio Robinson, 32, of Northside, not guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of Logan Mathews, a 7th grader at Gilbert A. Dater High School. Robinson, a security guard at a federal government building, was accused of killing Logan in a car parked in Northside during a drug deal on Jan. 28, 2006. He then drove the car to his mother's Mount Airy home, where she gave him a ride to the hospital in her minivan, according to prosecutors. In the meantime, a relative of Robinson's hid the car behind the home, Logan still slumped over the console. Robinson alerted authorities that a teenager had been shot, sending detectives to his mother's home. There, police found marijuana in the car, along with a bloody $20 bill, said Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier. Logan had two guns, one with the serial number filed off, Piepmeier said. Robinson told police several stories about what happened, leading to his being charged. "He never would have been charged if he just told the truth," said Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor Megan Shanahan. Shanahan said prosecutors suspect Logan told Robinson he wanted to buy marijuana, but once they were in the car Logan pulled out a gun and tried to rob Robinson. Robinson then hit Logan with his gun, prompting Logan to shoot Robinson and Robinson to shoot back, his shots killing the boy, Shanahan said."

Tennessee home invader killed: "West Precinct detectives continue to investigating Sunday morning's shooting death of Michael Antwan Wilson inside a home on Mercomatic Drive as a likely justifiable homicide. The investigation to this point shows that Wilson, 24, who was armed with a pistol, kicked in the front door of the residence in what detectives believe was part of a robbery plan. Homeowner Jeffrey Ham, 42, retrieved a gun and exchanged shots with Wilson. Wilson was fatally wounded and died at the scene."

FL: Armed nutcase Shot Dead: Pembroke Pines Police say they were forced to fire on a man who pulled a gun on them in a apartment complex. The incident happened Tuesday around 2 p.m. when the man, whom police identified as Alejandro Figueroa, 37, of Dania Beach, reportedly shot at two vehicles and then fled to the Archstone Harbour Cove apartments. No one was injured inside the cars. Police say when officers caught up to Figueroa, he barricaded himself in an apartment. After several minutes he emerged and reportedly drew his gun on the officers who fired in self defense, killing him. Firefighter Milton Parris was on his way to pick up his daughter from school when the suspect tried to flag him down. "As I passed him, he was cursing saying stop the car so I didn't," said Parris. "As I passed him I looked in the side view mirror and I realize he's shooting at me." Parris said the man fired at his SUV; at his vehicle's tires and the rear of his car. "He looked deranged," Parris said. "He had something on his mind. He had the look of death." Witnesses said the shooter also took aim at a couple; their car bore the scar from a bullet. No one was injured."

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