Are you a guitar owner? More important, do you own a guitar made by Gibson, one of the most well-known American guitar manufacturers? If so, listen up; you may be in Uncle Sam’s cross hairs – as a criminal.
Just ask Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitars.
Last week, heavily armed federal agents raided two guitar manufacturing facilities in Tennessee owned by Gibson — one in Nashville, another in Memphis. The feds were not acting on a tip that an al Qaeda cell was holed up in the buildings; or that Mexican drug cartel gangs were lurking inside. It was actually something far more serious; far more serious, that is, to a bunch of federal bureaucrats with nothing better to do.
The raids were carried out because the Department of Justice and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claim that parts of the iconic guitars manufactured in the plants contained the wrong kind of imported wood. And, although the feds have not made clear to Gibson just what it has done wrong, the government appears also to be claiming the guitar parts might have been exported to the U.S. contrary not to American laws, but to certain domestic laws of the countries exporting the parts to the United States!
One of the laws at play here is the hundred-year old Lacey Act, passed during the “Progressive Era,” and intended to promote conservation and as a crackdown on illegal trafficking in wildlife. The law also makes it a crime for a company to violate the laws or regulations of other countries. In this particular case, Gibson’s attorneys surmise it may be the law of India they are charged with misinterpreting or violating.
The Justice Department apparently believes the wood in question, used to construct fret boards for Gibson’s popular instruments, was imported from India without having first been “finished” by Indian workers; actions that could be considered a violation of that country’s byzantine legal code.
According to a press release from Gibson, the agents “seized several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars.” Juszkiewicz estimated the loss of raw materials alone to be $1 million; obviously not including financial losses due to the inability to produce guitars from those materials.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Gibson has been subjected to the overreaching, punitive arm of the federal government. In 2009, the Nashville facility was raided in similar fashion, based on accusations that rosewood imported from Madagascar and used in guitars, came from illegal logging. And, despite the fact that to this day, the government has not filed formal charges against Gibson, it has refused to return the company’s property.
Gibson has engaged in extensive and costly efforts to recover its property from that raid two years ago; including the filing of a civil lawsuit. In the civil proceedings, the company presented proof, including statements from the Madagascar government, that the wood was obtained legally. Still, the federal government refuses to budge; and now, with these second and third raids, appears intent on trying to put Gibson out of business completely.
These highly publicized actions by the federal government have ramifications for any musician owning a guitar made out of certain woods by overzealous federal agents of having been obtained illegally at some point in the manufacturing process (even if years ago and by a prior owner or manufacturer). The Wall Street Journal notes that owners of vintage guitars made out of now-banned or regulated woods had “better have correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument. Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent – not to mention face fines and prosecution.”
Gibson’s obviously frustrated CEO, who noted during a press conference the day of the raid that every guitar his company builds could possibly be considered criminal in nature, given the widely disparate countries from which the various woods are imported and in various states of manufacture; and considering the difficulty – if not impossibility – of correctly interpreting every relevant law of every one of those countries.
The government’s treatment of this American company – one of the few bright spots in domestic manufacture of musical instruments – is disgraceful, counterproductive, and mean-spirited.
In 2000, Charlton Heston, then serving as president of the National Rifle Association, and fighting gun control proposals, held a flintlock rifle over his head and declared famously, “from my cold dead hands.” Gibson’s CEO needs to rally freedom-loving Americans similarly; raising a Les Paul Gibson guitar over his head. All Americans who believe in freedom and limited government should come to Gibson’s defense; not just those who are guitar players.
by Bob Barr — The Barr Code