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
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.