December 28, 2012 5:30 P.M.
Laws Are for Little People
And not for David Gregory.
By Mark Steyn
A week ago on NBC’s Meet the Press, David Gregory brandished on screen a high-capacity magazine. To most media experts, a “high-capacity magazine” means an ad-stuffed double issue of Vanity Fair with the triple-page perfume-scented pullouts. But apparently in America’s gun-nut gun culture of gun-crazed gun kooks, it’s 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’s 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’s 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, “the dumbest media story of 2012.” Why? Because, as CNN’s Howard Kurtz breezily put it, everybody knows David Gregory wasn’t “planning to commit any crimes.”
So what? Neither are the overwhelming majority of his fellow high-capacity-magazine-owning Americans. Yet they’re 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’s 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’ll never take me alive, copper! You’ll 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: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” At last, some actual must-see TV on that lousy network.
But, even if we’re denied that pleasure, the “dumbest media story of 2012” is actually rather instructive. David Gregory intended to demonstrate what he regards as the absurdity of America’s lax gun laws. Instead, he’s demonstrating the ever greater absurdity of America’s non-lax laws. His investigation, prosecution, and a sentence of 20–30 years with eligibility for parole after ten (assuming Mothers Against High-Capacity Magazines don’t object) would teach a far more useful lesson than whatever he thought he was doing by waving that clip under LaPierre’s nose.
To Howard Kurtz & Co., it’s “obvious” that Gregory didn’t intend to commit a crime. But, in a land choked with laws, “obviousness” is one of the first casualties — and “obviously” innocent citizens have their “obviously” 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 “obvious” that David Gregory deserves to be treated more leniently than a sixth grader? Because he’s got a TV show and she hasn’t?
Anything involving guns is even less amenable to “obviousness.” 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 — eight months of it, in Iraq’s 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’t sound like an “obvious” terrorist. But the TSA put him on the no-fly list anyway. If it’s not “obvious” to the government that a serving member of the military has any legitimate reason for being around ammunition, why should it be “obvious” 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’s 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 “military-style ammunition belt.” 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 “fashion statement.” He had no gun with which to fire the bullets. Nevertheless, Fitchburg police proudly displayed the $20 punk-website ammo belt as if they’d just raided the Fitchburg mafia’s 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 — 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 — and little people need lots of little laws, ensnaring them at every turn.
This is all modern life is. Ernest Hemingway had a six-toed cat. The cat begat. (Eat your heart out, Doctor Seuss.) So descendants of his six-toed cat still live at the Hemingway home in Key West. Tourists visit the property. Thus, the Department of Agriculture is insisting that the six-toed cats are an “animal exhibit” like the tigers at the zoo, and therefore come under federal regulation requiring each to be housed in an individual compound with “elevated resting surfaces,” “electric wire,” and a night watchman. Should David Gregory be treated more leniently than a domestic cat just because when Obama tickles his tummy he licks the president’s hand and purrs contentedly?
There are two possible resolutions: Gregory can call in a favor from some Obama consigliere who’ll lean on the cops to disappear the whole thing. If he does that, he’ll be contributing to the remorseless assault on a bedrock principle of free societies — equality before the law. Laws either apply to all of us or none of us. If they apply only to some, they’re not laws but caprices — and all tyranny is capricious.
Or he can embrace the role in which fate has cast him. Sometimes a society becomes too stupid to survive. Eleven-year-old girls fined for rescuing woodpeckers, serving Marines put on the no-fly list, and fifth-generation family cats being ordered into separate compounds with “electric wire” fencing can all testify to how near that point America is. But nothing “raises awareness” like a celebrity spokesman. Step forward, David Gregory! Dare the prosecutor to go for the death penalty — and let’s make your ammo the non-shot heard round the world!
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2012 Mark Steyn