Many on the right deeply admire New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s fearless attitude and his ongoing war with the state’s spoiled teachers’ unions has made him a political star. Pundits are already pushing Christie to consider a 2012 presidential run. For his part, Christie has quashed rumors he may be running, saying that he is dedicated to solving the problems of New Jersey.
That said, Christie is a politician. If the Republican primary field offers up no other strong contenders, he could be convinced to run for the White House — “for the good of the people,” of course.
But the biggest hurdle in the way of his 2012 run seems to be cropping up in a storm gathering around a mild-mannered media consultant and graduate student named Brian Aitken, who was sentenced to seven years in jail by the collusion of an incompetent judge and New Jersey’s unreasonable gun laws.
Aitken legally purchased two handguns at Bass Pro Shops while living in Colorado, after undergoing the required FBI background checks. When he planned to move back to New Jersey to be near his young son and estranged wife, he had the foresight to call the State Police to inquire about how he could legally transport his firearms.
While in New Jersey at his mother’s home, he became angry with his ex-wife when she denied him a chance to see their young son. He stormed out of the house in anger and went for a drive to cool off. His mother, a social worker, thought he may have sounded suicidal, called 911, and then hung up, thinking she probably overreacted. The police traced the call and showed up at her home, and then they placed a call to Aitken, who returned to his mother’s home and successfully reassured officers that, while he was distraught and stressed, he was hardly a suicide risk.
And then — for reasons not fully explained — police searched Aitken’s car, and at the bottom of his personal possessions found the disassembled firearms locked in cases inside a duffel bag. Then the problems began.
New Jersey and Colorado are on opposite ends of the gun-control spectrum. In Colorado, all he needed was the background check to own the guns. In the Garden State, Aitken was required to have a purchaser’s permit from New Jersey to own the guns and a carry permit to have them in his car.
He also was charged with having “large capacity” magazines and hollow-point bullets, which one state gun-control advocate found troubling: “What little I can glean about the transportation issue leaves me puzzled, but a person with common sense would not be moving illegal products from one place to another by car,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire NJ, an organization devoted to reducing gun violence.
Aitken couldn’t have a New Jersey purchaser’s permit, because he bought his handguns — after an FBI background check — in Colorado. Nor could he have a carry permit, having just moved back to the state. Most troubling, however, is that even though he had neither of these hard-to-acquire documents, he was protected under an exemption that allows gun owners to transport locked and unloaded firearms from one residence to another while moving.
So why is Aitken in prison?
Because the judge in the case refused to tell the jury about the exemption, even though pressed for that information by Aitken’s lawyer and the jury itself. Judge James Moyer didn’t let Aitken claim the exemption for transporting guns between residences, leaving him stuck with a seven-year sentence. Larry Aitken, Brian’s father who has lived in Mount Laurel for more than 20 years, questioned the judge’s refusal to let the jury hear the portion of the law that dealt with exemptions in his son’s case:
Why would the jury send three separate requests to the judge asking specifically for information regarding the exemption from moving if they hadn’t seen evidence that Brian was moving, believed it, and wanted to use that exemption to find him not guilty?
Moyer’s career as a judge was subsequently terminated six days after Aitken’s conviction, as Governor Christie refused to reappoint him for having questionable judgment, as seen in a bizarre animal cruelty case that the judge dismissed.
Aitken’s conviction presents what his lawyer calls a “perfect storm of injustice” and has triggered a campaign to see him freed. The story of Aitken’s incarceration has highlighted the punitive — and arguably unconstitutional — nature of New Jersey’s gun laws, which are among the most restrictive in the nation.
The calls for clemency and a pardon for Aitken are bringing some uncomfortable scrutiny on Chris Christie, particularly his stance in favor of gun control.
Christie favors New Jersey’s restrictive handgun laws. He has bluntly stated he doesn’t want all citizens to be able to get a licensed weapon. Earlier in his career, his campaign used a dishonest ad to attack more conservative opponents that stood opposed to the ban on semi-automatic rifles. Christie’s ad described his opposition as “dangerous,” “crazy,” and “radical” for supporting citizens’ rights to own some of the most common firearms in America. Christie’s campaign also purposefully lied in the ad, referring to the firearms covered as “automatic assault weapons,” a class of military small arms not covered by the ban at all.
As a matter of justice, Governor Christie should pardon Brian Aitken, who made a good faith effort to comply with obtuse and restrictive laws and clearly had no criminal intent. The problem for Christie is that such a pardon would likely result in a deluge of appeals and pardon requests from those convicted on similar charges. There would likely be renewed challenges to the arguably unconstitutional laws that Christie supports.
As conservatives continue their push towards returning the nation’s laws to their constitutional foundation, and gun rights legal battles and legislation continue to make headway against restrictive gun laws, Chris Christie is sure to face a battle placing his long-held prohibitionist views against his newfound popularity and future political aspirations. Let us simply hope for Brian Aitken’s sake that Christie’s common sense wins out over his desire to limit the liberties of his citizens.