John Filippidis and his family were returning from a Christmas celebration in New Jersey. Headed home to Florida on New Years Eve 2013, they had no reason to expect trouble. Shortly after entering Maryland on I-95, Filippidis spotted a Transportation Authority patrol car in the rearview mirror. Next thing he knew, he was being questioned by a hostile officer who was only interested in one thing: “Where’s the gun?”
The gun, a Kel-Tec .380, was in a safe in Florida, where Filippidis is a CCW holder, but the angry officer wouldn’t believe that. The officer called for backup. The family was forced out of their SUV and held in separate police cars while their possessions were hauled onto the side of the highway and searched. Cops searched inside the engine compartment. They pulled off the door panels. They patted down the family’s teenage twins. Filippidis was horrified and mystified. How did a Maryland cop even know about that little Kel-Tec?
Justin Ross of Ankeny, Iowa is another CCW holder. On the morning of 30 January 2014, he was in the bathroom when a heavily armed SWAT team stormed his residence with faces masked, ballistic shields in place, and firearms at the ready. The reason? Somebody who lived there (not Ross and no one present at the time) was suspected of committing credit card fraud. Normally that might draw a pair of detectives asking questions. But Ankeny Police Captain Makai Echer insisted the SWAT raid was justified simply because somebody living in the house was known to own a firearm. Case closed.
What’s going on here? The shorthand answer to why gun owners are often targeted as dangerous criminals is usually “officer safety.” But John Filippidis didn’t present any danger to anybody. And Justin Ross was far more likely to shoot at thugs crashing into his home than at polite, door-knocking police detectives. It was sheer luck that Ross eventually heard the word “Police!” believed what he heard, and holstered his sidearm. Nobody got shot.
Eighty-year-old retired engineer Eugene Mallory wasn’t so lucky. When Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s deputies raided his rural California home (looking for a meth lab that didn’t exist), the nearly deaf sleeping man probably didn’t hear them. Sgt. John Bones shot Mallory to death. The raiders initially claimed Mallory confronted them in a hallway, pointing a gun at them and refusing to drop it when ordered. Mallory did have a firearm. But nobody knows whether he even had a chance to grab it. He was not shot in the hallway, but in his bed (as copious bloodstain evidence made clear). Audio recordings further revealed that Sgt. Bones shouted, “Drop the gun!” only after fatally plugging the old man with six rounds from an MP5.
But of course, Mallory wasn’t an officer, so his safety was not important.
You’d think the safety of Burleson County, Texas Sheriff’s Deputy Adam Sowders was important. Indeed, officer safety was one justification for the predawn no-knock raid that ended up getting Deputy Sowders killed.
The facts are distressingly familiar. Deputies were acting on the unsupported word of a confidential informant. The informant was (at best) exaggerating. He claimed that a trailer home occupied by Henry McGee contained a forest of cannabis plants plus an arsenal of stolen weapons. The Sheriff’s office did no further investigation. Deputy Sowders and company decided they could give the dangerous Mr. McGee no warning. Sowders himself requested the no-knock provision.
The only warning McGee got on the dark, cold morning of 19 December 2013 was his door being blasted in. He assumed the invaders were criminals, took up one of his five guns (none of them stolen), and did what he had to do to protect himself and his pregnant girlfriend. Sowders died.
Texas Rangers called to gather evidence did find about five pounds of marijuana. McGee went to jail and as of this writing is still in serious legal trouble.
But here the story departs from the norm. In February a grand jury refused to indict McGee for murder. They found no intent on his part to kill a cop. Although he may not have been as lawabiding as John Filippidis or Eugene Mallory, the evidence was that, if police had come knocking on McGee’s door, he would have likely let them in.
In 1994, in Staples v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot assume the simple act of gun ownership implies criminal intent. The fact that guns can be dangerous does not imply that gun owners should be treated as criminals. “[C]common experience,” said the Court, establishes “… that owning a gun is usually licit and blameless conduct.”
Yet time and again, gun owners are assumed to be deadly threats merely because they own firearms.
Ironically, on the day Henry McGee shot Deputy Sowders, the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit civil-liberties group focusing on constitutional issues, filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case of Quinn v. Texas.
The Institute’s announcement stated: “[John Quinn’s] home was subject to a no-knock, SWAT-team style forceful entry and raid based solely on the suspicion that there were legally owned firearms in his household. Although police had obtained a search warrant for John Quinn’s home based on information that Quinn’s son might possess drugs, the warrant did not authorize police to enter the residence without knocking and announcing their entry. During the raid, Quinn was shot by police because he had reached for his lawfully owned firearm, thinking that his home was being invaded by criminals. In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case of Quinn v. State of Texas, Institute attorneys argue that making lawful gun ownership and possession grounds for police to evade the protections aff orded by the Fourth Amendment improperly penalizes and limits the Second Amendment right to bear arms.”
Unfortunately, regardless of what the Court found in Staples and what it does or doesn’t do with Quinn, the reality is that otherwise harmless Americans are being threatened merely for being on record as gun owners. Being on record seems to make matters worse. Without having politely asked permission to own or carry fi rearms, John Filippidis would have traveled through Maryland unmolested. Justin Ross and his mother wouldn’t have been terrorized. John Quinn wouldn’t have been shot. Someone owning guns legally but privately wouldn’t have gotten the same treatment.
Assuming gun owners to be dangerous criminals is inherently unjust and is creating situations that are dangerous for police and raid victims alike.
No matter what any court says, I fear this trend is only going to continue. Militarization of policing continues to grow. Demonization of gun owners does too. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more Americans volunteer to put themselves into CCW databases or line up (willingly or otherwise) to register their “assault weapons” and standardcapacity magazines in those states that demand it.
And the databasing gets worse. Even the old Form 4473s we’ve gotten so used to filling out at the gun shop—forms the ATF is supposed to have only very limited access to—are being illegally copied. Background check data that are supposed to disappear are almost certainly being illegally retained. Who knows how much illicit data the NSA, FinCEN, and other covert agencies may be gathering about our gun ownership through unconstitutional sweeps of our emails, phone calls, credit card records, and bank records? And every bit of it can be used to target us.
All because of the bigoted assumption that all gun owners are violent criminals.
You want to talk about dangerous? That’s dangerous.