At 6 AM, the sky outside my apartment is still purple-black. It’s too early. I stagger out of bed and stand under a scalding jet of water in the shower, trying to remember where I’ve been, where I am, and where I need to be. Oklahoma. Austin. Houston. In less than eight hours I have to climb a stage and tell a roomful of strangers my story. As far as stories go, it’s pretty interesting, I guess. It’s got thrills, heartbreak, what technically counts as crime, and even a little bit of vindication. But telling it wears me out. Living through it was more than enough.
Three years ago this month, thanks mostly to poorly written laws and a vindictive judge, I turned 27 while incarcerated in Mid-State Correctional Facility in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
I got sentenced to seven years in prison for legally owning guns. I had purchased them in Colorado and brought them with me to New Jersey, home to some of the harshest gun laws in the country, where I moved to be closer to my young son. I complied with all of the regulations, but one day the police searched my car and charged me with unlawful possession of a weapon—even though my handguns were locked, unloaded, and in my trunk. The court said it was on me to prove that I wasn’t breaking any laws, which obviously was very difficult. When Reason magazine covered my case, it wrote, “Even the jurors who convicted him seem to have been looking for a reason to acquit him. But the judge gave them little choice.”
On the road south out of Austin, my phone buzzes with a new email. It’s from the Manchester Business School, where until recently I was trying to get an MBA. It’s one of the world’s more prestigious business schools, and I was on a partial scholarship for “exceptional entrepreneurship,” but the last time I flew out there for a workshop I had my passport seized by a customs agent. My problem, he explained, wasn’t with the UK government, but with the US. Thanks to my status as a convicted felon, I was no longer free to travel to other countries.
It’s also impossible for me to pass a background check. That means no apartments for me. A friend of a friend got me into a guest house in Austin—really just a studio apartment on the backside of the owner’s garage, with no stove or microwave. But it’s nice. I’ve been working and writing so much I don’t have time to cook anyway.
What have I been working on? Lots of stuff related to my case, for one. Speeches at gatherings like the one I’m headed to right now, the Gun Rights Policy Conference. I tell people about my experiences both in court and in prison, about how, after I spent four months behind bars, governor Chris Christie signed an executive order releasing me and commuted my sentence to time served. But I also tell people about how he signed S2804 into law two months ago.
S2804 was a bill that amended the Graves Act, the law I was convicted of breaking. It changes the mandatory minimum sentence for offenders from 36 months to 42 months—an extra six months in prison for gun owners who haven’t been convicted of any crime other than owning a gun, which isn’t even technically illegal. (You need a piece of paper in order to buy a gun and another piece of paper to carry one around on your person, but it’s technically legal to own one.) Without a concealed carry permit, which is extraordinarily difficult to get, many innocent gun owners wind up being labeled as criminals. Even retired cops have a hard time meeting the “justifiable need”standard the state requires for anyone looking to get a concealed carry license. In 2011, a pet store owner who was kidnapped and feared being attacked again by the same men was denied a permit to carry a handgun.
This bill also changed possession of a handgun to a first-degree felony under certain conditions. If I owned guns in New Jersey right now I’d risk getting sentenced to ten to 20 prison, which is a hell of a lot of time to get for a “crime” that doesn’t involve hurting or threatening anyone.
As the flat, dry Texas landscape slides by, my mind drifts from my circumstances and the speech I haven’t written to the son I haven’t seen in four years.
In New Jersey, where I think he still lives, it’s almost 11 AM. Maybe he’s on his way to T-Ball. Maybe he’s sleeping in. Does he even play T-Ball? He turned five a few months ago so he might. I have to google “what age do kids start playing T-Ball?”
I wonder if anyone has taught him how to ski yet. I know a lot of kids start skiing when they’re four, so it’s possible. I wonder what books his mom or some stranger might read to him at night. I wonder if that other man, if there is one, isn’t a stranger to him.
I realize I’m the stranger.
I pull into the the Houston Marriott at the International Airport and a valet takes my car. There’s no self parking, and I cringe. I hate spending money. I’m not getting paid to speak at this conference and I drove out here on my own dime, but the message is important. It needs to be heard. People need to know that what happened to me could happen to them, even if I haven’t found the words to say it yet.
I go to check in and I feel out of place. It’s a room full of policy experts and lawyers like Alan Gura, who argued Heller v. DC, the landmark gun rights case, and Dave Kopel, who represented 55 of Colorado’s 62 sheriffs in the recent recall election. I can’t match their expertise—I was just a kid, seven months out of college, when I was arrested.
I begin typing on my iPhone. Seven minutes later I’ve finished writing my speech and I’m looking for a business center in the hotel so I can print it out. Then I’m in front of my audience.
Since I’m practically the only person in the room who’s not a lawyer, I realize there’s nothing I can tell them about my case they don’t already know from a legal standpoint. The only real value I can add is to tell them what it feels like to get caught in a patchwork of draconian gun laws. I decide to focus on the consequences I’ve faced as a convicted felon who has broken no laws.
I start with how a family court judge decided I wasn’t a fit parent and couldn’t see my son because of all of the (nonviolent and victimless) charges against me. I go on to explain how my record included so many weapons offenses, all for that one incident, that my fellow inmates thought I must have been a big-time arms trafficker. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked to “hook up” somebody “on the outside.” The Bloods who wanted my business didn’t like it when I told them they could go to my supplier, Bass Pro Shops, and get whatever they wanted so long as they could pass all the FBI and CBI background checks I did.
The moderator stands up and I realize my 15 minutes are almost over. Quickly, I run through a mental checklist: Did I mention how the judge refused to let the jury to consider the laws in my case? Did I remember to tell them how the jury asked three times what the exemptions to the law were that would have let me walk? Did I mention how I am not allowed to vote, or own firearms, or that my passport was revoked?
I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I’m not an expert, I’m not an activist. I wonder what the hell I’m doing up here. I wonder where I’d be right now if my life had taken a different turn.
I see the audience begin to stand and their applause chokes me up. A murmured “thank you” manages to escape my lips before I bolt off the stage.
I wish I wasn’t able to tell my story; I wish I didn’t have a story to tell. I just want to be in New York with my dogs and my fiancée. I just want to be annoyed that my son is jumping up and down on my bed and keeping me from sleeping in. I just want my life back.
I want to be normal.
Brian Aitken is petitioning the Supreme Court of the United States to hear his case and overturn his status as a felon so he can once again see his son. His book is available for preorder at bannedbykickstarter.com.