‘I did break the law — to my shock,” Gordon Van Gilder tells me over the phone. He sighs. “Legally, they’re right.”
The “they” in this equation is the state of New Jersey. The “I” is Van Gilder, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher from the town of Millville. And that “law-breaking”? Well, that could be extremely costly indeed. For transporting a 300-year-old flintlock pistol without a concealed-carry license, Van Gilder has been charged with a second-degree felony — specifically, with “unlawful possession of a handgun” — and he is facing a maximum of ten years in state prison. This, he suggests, is “unbelievable.”
Van Gilder’s ordeal began last November, when the car he was traveling in was pulled over by police. At the time, he and a friend were on their way back from a meeting with an antique dealer. “I’m very interested in the 18th century, both here and in Britain,” he tells me over the phone. “I’ve collected a lot of 18th-century items. I have some things from the Continental Army, including some personal documents — letters and so on. But I’m more interested in the things they made. My house is full of 18th-century furniture. I have little spoons, glassware. It’s an obsession of mine. I’m not a gun collector per se, but I think they’re interesting.”
The gun in question, Van Gilder says, “was probably made about 1765 in Belgium — for the British market.” A dealer found it in Pennsylvania, and held it for him. “I paid $800 for it. It’s a boxlock pistol, so there’s no hammer. It’s beautiful.”
Having picked the gun up, Van Gilder and his friend first went to lunch, and then they headed home. “My friend was driving because my arm is shot,” Van Gilder recalls. On the way home, the pair were pulled over by a local sheriff. According to Van Gilder, the detaining officer told him that he wanted to search the car, and threatened him with dogs if he refused. “I didn’t mind,” he tells me, but he wanted to make sure that the officer knew that there was a flintlock pistol in the glove compartment, and that he had just purchased it. “Oh, man,” Gilder says. “Immediately, he wanted to arrest me. But when he called the undersheriff, he was told, ‘No, it’s a 250-year-old pistol; let him go.’”
The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilders says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.’” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”
“I’ve never been handcuffed in my life — or arrested, even,” Van Gilder explains. “I was embarrassed and ashamed. The only prisoner there was myself: a 72-year-old English teacher. I was really ashamed.”
Before long, Van Gilder had been charged and the gun had been taken away for “ballistics testing,” almost certainly never to be returned. (That the department believes that a ballistics test on a flintlock pistol can be useful should give you some indication of who we’re dealing with here.) “They’ve angered me,” Van Gilder concedes. “But technically, by New Jersey’s law, the officer was probably right.”
That, sadly, is true. Indeed, according to Van Gilder’s lawyer, Evan Nappen, Gordon has fallen foul of a “fundamental flaw” in New Jersey’s law. “Classifying this pistol as a weapon,” Nappen says, “is absolutely absurd. We’re talking about a crime that carries a minimum mandatory sentence of between three and a half and five years.”
The federal government, Nappen notes, “doesn’t even consider this gun a weapon.” (By the terms of the 1968 Gun Control Act, few firearms manufactured prior to 1898 are subject to federal law.) “This is an original flintlock that predates the founding of the country, and was made before New Jersey’s laws were passed. But they’re treating it the same as if it were a .44 Magnum.” The idea that he was breaking a law, Nappen concludes, “never crossed Van Gilder’s mind. It’s an antique. He had no intention of shooting it. It wasn’t loaded. There was no flint, no powder, and no ball.”
Of late, New Jersey seems to have been working overtime to solidify its reputation as the silliest state in the union. Last year, wild-eyed prosecutors in Atlantic County attempted to put a single mother of two in prison for ten years after she crossed the border from Pennsylvania in possession of a concealed weapon and a carry license that she thought was accepted nationally. After a public outcry and a good deal of pressure from the media, that case was all but dropped. Later, the prosecution rules were altered, too. But the victory was undoubtedly bittersweet for the woman at the center: 27-year-old Shaneen Allen, who had no criminal record and no intention of breaking the law, and who nevertheless spent six months in fear of losing her liberty, her livelihood, and her children.
Putting to one side the myriad problems with New Jersey’s preposterously illiberal laws, Allen’s ordeal was so perplexing because it need never have been brought about in the first instance. In her case — as, now, in Van Gilder’s — the prosecuting authorities had absolute discretion. Then, as now, they did not use it. In this latest case, it seems clear that there was no need to arrest Van Gilder in the first instance, and neither was there any obvious justification for charging him. Indeed, in a reasonable state, the existence of judgment-limiting mandatory minimums would make prosecutors more likely, not less, to drop the fringe cases at the outset. But New Jersey is not a reasonable state, and its authorities are neither kind nor judicious. Rather, they are stubborn and they are zealous. There is something unutterably rotten about the Garden State these days. Gordon Van Gilder is merely the latest victim.
Naturally, Van Gilder is correct when he notes that he did, indeed, “break the law.” But, as he told the National Rifle Association last week, he is also correct when he posits that the “law is an ass” and that it needs to be changed. Earlier this week, the lawyers’ group blog Popehat noted caustically that “none of the New Jersey founders who ratified the Constitution when this pistol was crafted would have questioned the man’s right to keep it.” This is indisputably true. Indeed, the news that an arthritic septuagenarian retiree had been tied to a bench for a non-violent crime would presumably have shocked them to the core. But, for all that their words live on, those leaders are dead, and we must look now to the ones that we have today. Where the hell are they? Where are the voices crying out for a change in the rules, and for a restoration of basic American liberties? And above all, where is the fearless Chris Christie — a man who seems to want to be president of the United States — when one of his constituents is being harassed by the state?
In the course of our interview, I learned that Van Gilder has in his possession a handful of letters that were “written personally by Trumbull — one of the only men to have been a royally appointed governor and a governor after the Revolution.” This, I daresay, brings him great pleasure. But it would be nice to have some vocal support among the living as well.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can donate to Gordon Van Gilder’s legal defense fund here.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.