A week ago on NBC‚Äôs Meet the Press, David Gregory brandished on screen a high-capacity magazine. To most media experts, a ‚Äúhigh-capacity magazine‚ÄĚ means an ad-stuffed double issue of Vanity Fair with the triple-page perfume-scented pullouts. But apparently in America‚Äôs gun-nut gun culture of gun-crazed gun kooks, it‚Äôs something else entirely, and it was this latter kind that Mr. Gregory produced in order to taunt Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. As the poster child for America‚Äôs gun-crazed gun-kook gun culture, Mr. LaPierre would probably have been more scared by the host waving around a headily perfumed Vanity Fair. But that was merely NBC‚Äôs first miscalculation. It seems a high-capacity magazine is illegal in the District of Columbia, and the flagrant breach of D.C. gun laws is now under investigation by the police.
This is, declared NYU professor Jay Rosen, ‚Äúthe dumbest media story of 2012.‚ÄĚ Why? Because, as CNN‚Äôs Howard Kurtz breezily put it, everybody knows David Gregory wasn‚Äôt ‚Äúplanning to commit any crimes.‚ÄĚ
So what? Neither are the overwhelming majority of his fellow high-capacity-magazine-owning Americans. Yet they‚Äôre expected to know, as they drive around visiting friends and family over Christmas, the various and contradictory gun laws in different jurisdictions. Ignorantia juris non excusat is one of the oldest concepts in civilized society: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Back when there was a modest and proportionate number of laws, that was just about doable. But in today‚Äôs America there are laws against everything, and any one of us at any time is unknowingly in breach of dozens of them. And in this case NBC were informed by the D.C. police that it would be illegal to show the thing on TV, and they went ahead and did it anyway: You‚Äôll never take me alive, copper! You‚Äôll have to pry my high-capacity magazine from my cold dead fingers! When the D.C. SWAT team, the FBI, and the ATF take out NBC News and the whole building goes up in one almighty fireball, David Gregory will be the crazed loon up on the roof like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat: ‚ÄúMade it, Ma! Top of the world!‚ÄĚ At last, some actual must-see TV on that lousy network.
But, even if we‚Äôre denied that pleasure, the ‚Äúdumbest media story of 2012‚ÄĚ is actually rather instructive. David Gregory intended to demonstrate what he regards as the absurdity of America‚Äôs lax gun laws. Instead, he‚Äôs demonstrating the ever greater absurdity of America‚Äôs non-lax laws. His investigation, prosecution, and a sentence of 20‚Äď30 years with eligibility for parole after ten (assuming Mothers Against High-Capacity Magazines don‚Äôt object) would teach a far more useful lesson than whatever he thought he was doing by waving that clip under LaPierre‚Äôs nose.
To Howard Kurtz & Co., it‚Äôs ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ that Gregory didn‚Äôt intend to commit a crime. But, in a land choked with laws, ‚Äúobviousness‚ÄĚ is one of the first casualties ‚ÄĒ and ‚Äúobviously‚ÄĚ innocent citizens have their ‚Äúobviously‚ÄĚ well-intentioned actions criminalized every minute of the day. Not far away from David Gregory, across the Virginia border, eleven-year-old Skylar Capo made the mistake of rescuing a woodpecker from the jaws of a cat and nursing him back to health for a couple of days. For her pains, a federal Fish & Wildlife gauleiter accompanied by state troopers descended on her house, charged her with illegal transportation of a protected species, issued her a $535 fine, and made her cry. Why is it so ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ that David Gregory deserves to be treated more leniently than a sixth grader? Because he‚Äôs got a TV show and she hasn‚Äôt?
Anything involving guns is even less amenable to ‚Äúobviousness.‚ÄĚ A few years ago, Daniel Brown was detained at LAX while connecting to a Minneapolis flight because traces of gunpowder were found on his footwear. His footwear was combat boots. As the name suggests, the combat boots were returning from combat ‚ÄĒ eight months of it, in Iraq‚Äôs bloody and violent al-Anbar province. Above the boots he was wearing the uniform of a staff sergeant in the USMC Reserve Military Police and was accompanied by all 26 members of his unit, also in uniform. Staff Sergeant Brown doesn‚Äôt sound like an ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ terrorist. But the TSA put him on the no-fly list anyway. If it‚Äôs not ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ to the government that a serving member of the military has any legitimate reason for being around ammunition, why should it be ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ that a TV host has?
Three days after scofflaw Gregory committed his crime, a bail hearing was held in Massachusetts for Andrew Despres, 20, who‚Äôs charged with trespassing and possession of ammunition without a firearms license. Mr. Despres was recently expelled from Fitchburg State University and was returning to campus to pick up his stuff. Hence the trespassing charge. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a ‚Äúmilitary-style ammunition belt.‚ÄĚ Hence, the firearms charge.
His mom told WBZ that her son purchased the belt for $20 from a punk website and had worn it to class every day for two years as a ‚Äúfashion statement.‚ÄĚ He had no gun with which to fire the bullets. Nevertheless, Fitchburg police proudly displayed the $20 punk-website ammo belt as if they‚Äôd just raided the Fitchburg mafia‚Äôs armory, and an obliging judge ordered Mr. Despres held on $50,000 bail. Why should there be one law for Meet the Press and another for Meet Andrew Despres? Because David Gregory throws better cocktail parties?
The argument for letting him walk rests on his membership of a protected class ‚ÄĒ the media. Notwithstanding that (per Gallup) 54 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the NRA while only 40 percent have any trust in the media, the latter regard themselves as part of the ruling class. Which makes the rest of you the ruled. Laws are for the little people ‚ÄĒ and little people need lots of little laws, ensnaring them at every turn.