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Dustin Reininger is serving a five-year sentence with a three-year minimum before he’s eligible for parole. His crime? Pulling off the highway to get some rest during a long drive.

Reininger was moving from Maine to Texas, but only made it as far as New Jersey. He got tired and parked behind a building in Readington Township, a quiet, rural area of the state near the Pennsylvania line. Had he held out for another 20 minutes, there wouldn’t be a story about Dustin Reininger because he wouldn’t have had a problem in Pennsylvania, but he was tired so he stopped in New Jersey.

Police found him asleep in his SUV early that morning. Reininger just wanted to move on down the road, but officers thought something in the back seat looked like a gun case and considered that probable cause for a search. Officers searched Reininger’s vehicle and found several rifles, shotguns and handguns, as well as hollow point bullets and a “high-capacity” magazine.

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal in Maine and in Texas – or even 24 miles up the road in Pennsylvania – but it’s not legal in New Jersey without a permit. There is a provision in federal law that provides safe passage for someone transporting guns through a restrictive jurisdiction, but the jury didn’t get to hear about that law. The appeals court panel said that didn’t apply because it specifies that the guns should be locked in the trunk, and Reininger’s SUV didn’t have a trunk. They also ruled that officers were justified in searching Reininger’s car because they recognized the gun cases as evidence of a crime. The case could go to the State Supreme Court, but I wouldn’t make any bets on Reininger’s chances of getting a new trial.

Dustin Reininger’s life has been destroyed simply because he innocently possessed his legally owned guns in the wrong place at the wrong time. A minimum of three years in a New Jersey prison is no cake walk. Reininger will, for the rest of his life, have to mark “Yes” on job applications asking if he’s ever been convicted of a felony, and he is barred from ever owning firearms again.

This is what gun control laws do. They turn innocent people into criminals, destroying lives, while protecting no one.

A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office told an AP reporter that the office was “gratified that the court accepted our arguments that none of the issues had any legal merit, or provided a basis to upset the defendant’s conviction.”

It doesn’t matter to the police or the politicians or the attorney general that this guy wasn’t hurting anyone, or that he wasn’t planning to hurt anyone. All that matters to them is that they caught and convicted someone who was in technical violation of their hoplophobic gun laws. And unfortunately, this is an attitude that is prevalent in too many police departments and AG’s offices around the country. Reininger’s story is not unique, it just happens to be a recent, and particularly egregious, example of something we’ve been seeing routinely for over 40 years.

The other side of the coin is just as bad. While gun laws routinely ensnare the innocent, they are just as routinely dismissed in prosecuting serious career criminals. Some gun laws can’t even be enforced against criminals because doing so would violate their Fifth Amendment rights. For instance, a convicted felon who is prohibited from possessing a firearm cannot be prosecuted for failing to register his illegal weapon because doing so would be self-incriminating. So we end up with serious, violent criminals released back on the street because prosecutors are unwilling or unable to keep them locked up, while harmless people like Dustin Reininger are zealously prosecuted for technical violations – and the prosecution is “gratified.”

Reininger’s is not an isolated case. The names of people unjustly prosecuted – and persecuted – in the name of gun control would fill a book. The history is clear; no matter how innocuous or “common sense” a gun law might seem, once it goes into force it is inevitably used to harass and abuse gun owners.

That’s just one of the reasons gun owners opposed the recent Manchin-Toomey proposal to extend background checks to private sales. Among the very troubling provisions in that proposal, the most obvious danger is the requirement that even transactions involving concealed carry permit holders – who are exempt from background checks – would have been required to go through a dealer. The only reason to do that is to create a permanent record of the transaction – registration – something gun owners have long opposed, with good reason.

Gun control is not about guns, it’s about control. History shows that gun laws always end up being used to harass and persecute regular gun owners. Gun owners have every reason to expect that any law that can be used to abuse them will be used to abuse them.

Are gun owners paranoid because we believe gun control laws threaten us? Dustin Reininger is serving a five-year sentence with a three-year minimum before he’s eligible for parole because he pulled off the highway to get some rest during a long drive.

If we are paranoid, it’s because we need to be.

 

 

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