Guitars, Guns, and Federal Excesses

by Jeff Knox

On August 24, 2011, federal agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service raided offices and production facilities of the Gibson Guitar company. They sent workers home and confiscated several pallets of wood along with computer files and numerous guitars (amounting to about $2 million in lost production and property). This was the second raid on Gibson in as many years over questions about some of the wood the legendary guitar makers use in their products. The timing of the latest raid is convenient for the government as they are currently trying to convince a federal judge to indefinitely delay a lawsuit from Gibson demanding the return of some half-million dollars worth of ebony wood seized by federal agents back in 2009. No charges have ever been filed against the company regarding that raid, but the government has continued to refuse to return the seized wood which they suspected might have been illegally harvested in Madagascar.

The object of the August 24 raid appears to have been wood imported from India. Gibson says that they have been extra careful to document all of the wood they import since the 2009 federal assault and that the particular wood in question was acquired from a supplier certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an environmental organization set up to protect endangered trees by identifying legally harvested wood and closing markets to illegally cut products. The particular wood in question was purchased and imported from India with an extensive paper-trail from the Indian government and the US Customs Service. According to Gibson, the Fish and Wildlife Service is claiming that the wood violates an Indian requirement that wood exported from the country must be processed to a certain degree by Indian craftsmen prior to export. Gibson says this requirement was either met or waived by the Indian government as demonstrated by India's export authorizations. The Indian government did not sanction or participate in the August raid. Gibson executives say they are being unjustly bullied by the feds.

The persecution of Gibson Guitars has instrument manufacturers and musicians around the country and around the world deeply concerned. The raids highlight threats posed by well-intentioned laws aimed at curtailing over-harvesting and destruction of certain trees as well as some animal products such as certain types of horn and ivory. When these laws and international agreements were enacted they focused mainly on furniture and art items, but now enforcement is broadening with musical instrument makers and people traveling internationally with instruments being required to provide proof that the ebony, rosewood, and ivory used in the instruments' construction came from legal sources. Even though an instrument might be over 100 years old, if the lineage of an ivory nut or saddle, or a fingerboard of Brazilian Rosewood is questioned, the instrument may be subject to question and confiscation if proof of the components' sources can not be provided. This threat also directly impacts gun owners as many fine firearms have exotic wood stocks with inlays and accents of ebony, ivory or other rare and potentially restricted materials.

The whole idiotic assault on Gibson Guitars is reminiscent of what firearms dealers, manufacturers, importers, and owners have been dealing with for decades. Firearms importers have had literal boatloads of products seized on the basis of some obscure paperwork complication and even when the issue is resolved, the seized guns might not be returned. Gun shops have been closed down and their entire inventories confiscated on the basis of customers using "Y" and "N" rather than "Yes" and "No" on purchase forms or abbreviating the name of a city rather than writing it out completely. When guns are returned, they are often damaged from improper storage and handling and there have even been cases where agents have lost parts of a dealers seized records and then come back and cited the dealers for not being able to produce the records the agents lost.

The problems stem from well intentioned, but poorly written laws and regulations. They are emotionally appealing when described in sound bites during congressional consideration, and they're always supposed to accomplish some laudable goal, but soon federal enforcers realize that it's easier – and more lucrative – to ignore the real objective of the laws (serious criminals) and go after technical violations by people who have no criminal intent and pose no threat to society or the environment. The laws get interpreted and implemented ways that make it virtually impossible for people to conduct their business or pursue their hobby without running afoul of some technicality or paperwork issue. With such a universal failure rate, government agencies are able to target virtually any business or individual for selective enforcement and even if they can't put together a winning case, they can cause enough disruption and financial damage to effectively destroy productive lives and businesses.

Whether it's guitar makers besieged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, farmers under assault from the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers, or gun owners and dealers under attack from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, it all boils down to overreaching federal government. While the feds do have some legitimate jurisdiction in these matters, they are overstepping their rightful authority in all directions and it’s well past time for the citizens to rein them in. If all of the disparate interests being victimized by these overreaching federal bureaucrats would join forces, we could put a stop to this nonsense once and for all.

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