Gun Madness at the State Line

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Why do states treat ordinary citizens as gun criminals?

Earlier this year, a 27-year-old medical professional named Shaneen Allen drove peacefully out of her home state of Pennsylvania and into neighboring New Jersey. Today, she faces the prospect of three years in prison.

When she crossed the state line, Allen was carrying a concealed weapon. “I work two jobs and I work late, and getting up at that time of night I got robbed twice last year,” Allen told MY9NJ’s Bill Anderson. A friend recommended that she get herself a concealed-carry permit. This she did, fulfilling not only the requirements established by the state of Pennsylvania but the tougher restrictions that her city of Philadelphia imposes on top. Pulled over near the border by New Jersey police for an “unsafe lane change,” Allen informed officers that she was carrying a pistol. Her honesty landed her in serious trouble. Immediately, she was arrested and charged with both illegal possession of a firearm and possession of hollow-point ammunition. It was, her lawyer, Evan F. Nappen, tells me over the phone, “the most technical of errors. She thought her permit was treated like a driver’s license and was valid everywhere. And why wouldn’t you?”

Ignorance does not constitute a defense, and Allen is not exempt from state laws. If New Jersey wishes to prosecute her for her mistake it has every legal right to do so. But the aggressive manner in which county prosecutors have pursued a conviction is little short of bizarre. “The prosecutor has complete discretion in this case,” Nappen explains. “He could drop the charges. He could downgrade the case and send it to municipal court to be treated as a misdemeanor.” Alas, he has done no such thing, instead doing everything in his power to maximize the likelihood of incarceration. New Jersey has a program called “Pretrial Intervention,” which is designed, Nappen contends, for “circumstances exactly like Allen’s.” PTI, its website confirms, is intended to provide “defendants, generally first-time offenders, with opportunities for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice process of ordinary prosecution.” Those “alternatives” involve avoiding jail and having one’s conviction record scrubbed after a certain period of time. Allen applied for the program, and was quickly approved. But prosecutors refused to sign off, agitating for jail time instead.

Nappen isn’t surprised. “This is about New Jersey’s draconian anti-gun attitude,” he tells me:

Here, simple unlawful possession of a handgun is a crime of the second degree. The only degree higher is murder! . . . I have other — four or five — cases of licensed law-abiding Americans who are being charged in this county with the same type of situation. . . . If she is convicted, the judge will have no say. He has to pass a sentence of between three years minimum and ten years maximum.

This is a dire outcome in and of itself — an ugly example of the penal system choosing to smash a peanut with a sledgehammer. But, for Allen, it would be disastrous. The conviction would render her a felon, almost certainly preventing her from working in the medical profession again and prohibiting her from owning or carrying a gun for her protection. Worst of all, it would take her — a single mother — away from her two children.

New Jersey issues fewer carry permits than almost any other state in the union, and the chances of getting hold of one as an outsider are effectively nil. Worse, the state accepts permits from not a single other jurisdiction — not even those that neighbor it. For anyone who lives on the border, this is a real problem. Indeed, it is a problem that many Americans in or around our bluer states live with daily. Unless you are a law-enforcement officer or the driver of an armored car, you are unable to apply for a national concealed-carry permit, and are thus at the mercy of your state. Currently, reciprocity is something of a patchwork quilt. Americans can get a non-resident permit from a state such as Florida, Michigan, Missouri, or Utah, and thus add between 35 to 37 states to their collection. If they wish to make a game of it, they might add a few individual state permits, too. But there will still be some notable holes. Some states currently refuse to issue permits to non-residents at all. Others decline to accept any other state’s permit as valid. Catastrophically, a few states sit in both groups, rendering it impossible for outsiders to carry there. Officially, the only state that refuses to issue permits to non-residents and refuses to accept any others is California. Practically, though, both New York and New Jersey are in this position — as Shaneen Allen has discovered to her detriment.

Being a staunch federalist at heart, I must confess that I am loath to react to the problem by proposing yet another national law. Undoubtedly there will come a time when anything and everything is justified under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, but until then I shall continue to insist that state power should mean something and that these questions of reciprocity are better resolved locally than nationally. First and foremost, this is a matter for the state of New Jersey, which should treat the incident as a long overdue invitation to revisit its rules and as an opportunity for some self-reflection. Of late, Governor Chris Christie has shown some willingness to take action. In 2010, when a man named Brian Aitken was convicted of illegally possessing a trio of handguns in his car and sentenced to seven years in prison, Christie commuted the sentence to time served and refused to reappoint the judge who presided over the trial. More recently, Christie has shown signs of moving further away from the instinct that allows such laws to be put on the books in the first instance. But these are post hoc reversals, not long-term solutions. Whether their stories elicit sympathy or not, free people should never enjoy their liberties at the sufferance of the good humor of a prosecutor and his boss. Time for some change. The “Allen Bill” has a nice ring to it.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.