11/08 Confronting the Government Pincer on Gun Rights

By Larry Pratt

There is an adage that, “Bad cases make bad laws.”  With courts in the business of law making more than ever before, bad cases are all the more a concern.

One way to set the traps for peaceful gun owners is to use cases against criminals and cops to establish precedents that will make it easier to put the rest of the citizenry in jail.

Gun Owners Foundation submitted a friend of the court brief in U.S. v. Watson because of our concern with a growing body of laws that penalize mere gun possession.  Watson was convicted on drug charges.  He was given an extra sentence for having used a gun in his crime because he received a gun in exchange for some dope.  GOF argued in its brief before the Supreme Court that the law was never intended to include Watson’s being paid with a gun.  Happily, the Supreme Court agreed 9-0.

GOF wrote its brief in Watson long before anyone ever heard of Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Antonio Compean.  But once the two were illegitimately convicted, GOA got involved in their appeal. 

Among other things, GOA was concerned that the “discharging a gun in a crime of violence” charge in the Border Patrol agents’ trial was another of those “used a gun in a violent crime” charges.  As our attorneys looked into the case, they found that the charge of “discharging” is not even a crime in federal law.  It is but a sentencing enhancement.  The prosecution pulled a very sinister slight of hand.

By making the charge one of “discharging,” the only thing before the jury on that non-existent charge was whether or not the two agents had fired their guns.  Had the prosecution not twisted the law, they would have been forced to convince the jury that men who are required to carry guns to and at work, nevertheless, feloniously used their guns. 

The prosecution would have had to get a conviction on something such as attempted homicide and then the sentencing enhancement of “discharging” would have applied.  

That would have required the prosecutor to get into a discussion of facts that arguably they either lied about or withheld from the jury. 

For example, Osvaldo Aldrete was seen crossing the border illegally in a truck.  He was confronted and pursued by agents Ramos and Compean.  He left his truck and began running on foot toward the border.  Ramos and Compean testified that he turned to shoot at them.  As he was doing so, Compean shot him.  The agents did not know until later that Aldrete, who escaped to the other side of the border after the shooting, had been wounded.  Aldrete left no gun behind.

The prosecution argued that they were shooting from behind at an unarmed man.  The medical record showed a lateral wound channel, not one from back to front.  Such a wound supported the agents’ testimony, not Aldrete’s. 

The jury was never told that Osvaldo Aldrete was lying (with the prosecution’s acquiescence, if not instigation) about having illegally crossed the border just this once with his illegal load.  He needed the money to pay for his mother’s operation, he claimed.  The jury never learned that Aldrete had — even while the trial was pending — been apprehended with another load of dope. 

In addition the jury was never told that Aldrete’s neighbors reported that he never left home without a handgun.  In Mexico, there is no concealed carry of guns that is legal. 

During the time the trial was pending, Aldrete was receiving payments from the government.  Had the jury known that, they might have questioned the truthfulness of the prosecution’s sole witness. 

Dealing with all of these issues would have changed the whole tenor of the trial.  Obviously, that is why the prosecution chose to invent the charge of “discharging a gun in the commission of a violent crime” which enabled them to presume the violent crime without ever proving the agents had committed such a crime. 

GOF believes that both cases violate the rule of law and due process.  Losing these “hard cases” means, for example, that a mom or dad driving their kids through a gun free school zone into a roadblock while armed, risks being charged with “using” a gun in the commission of a crime, or something equally vicious. 

With Watson and Ramos and Compean, the government has sought to set up some “no-lose” prosecutions that, if not blocked, will threaten all gun owners.