August 26, 2011

The War on Wood

Federal agents raided Gibson Guitars in Memphis and Nashville earlier this week, looking for illicit wood.

I suppose the resources expended on the guitar crackdown means less that can be devoted to shooting pets, harassing cancer patients, and setting little girls on fire and such, but in this age of tight budgets and diminishing resources, can we really afford to field a standing army of Guitar Police?

Also, this concern seems far-fetched even to me, but since I'm a bit paranoid and I do have a few old guitars, I am choosing to be terrified by it:

Musicians who play vintage guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next.

If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood. Cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you 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.

John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."

Careful with that axe, Eugene.

Posted by Dr. Frank at August 26, 2011 11:47 PM | TrackBack

This company is known to have supported GOP candidates financially. Obama is using government power to harass and intimidate his political opponents. Nixon was driven from office for this sort of thing. It is very much the Cook County, City of Chicago Democrat way. Make it impossible to stay in business for anyone who supports the other party. Create a one party state through threats and intimidation and corrupt misuse of government power. America, welcome to Chicago.

Posted by: Lexington Green at August 27, 2011 03:41 AM

That customs contraband materials threat is no joke. I once saw a guy have his clothes confiscated at the Canadian border (he was a motorcycle guy and he had leather pants, jacket, etc.) He had to argue with the agents in his underwear, trying to explain where he'd purchased the leather jeans. They really do expect you to have proof, like a signed affidavit from the cow or something. He didn't have one.

Pretty much all guitars have rosewood fingerboards, and there isn't any way to prove where the wood did or not come from. Granted, this probably won't happen too often, and you could probably travel across the border with your guitar or your leather for your whole life and have it never come up. But if you meet an overzealous or vindictive agent, you could easily be facing confiscation and even prison, because the Constitution is largely suspended at the border; as is the common law, in effect, because the burden of proof is on the accused to establish his own innocence.

The infraction doesn't even have to be of a law or regulation of either of the two countries whose border you are crossing. If *any* country has (or has ever had) laws or regulations forbidding the material, you could be on the hook for it, even if you've never heard of the country, even if the law is no longer in effect there, even if the regime or polity that passed the law no longer exists.

There was this one lady who was sent to prison by an American judge for two years because a discontinued regulation from Honduras that banned transporting lobsters in plastic bags.

If you're going to Canada make sure your guitar, your jacket, and your lobsters are well hidden. But better yet, just stay home.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at August 28, 2011 06:35 PM

We are doomed. Motherf*ckin' doomed.

Posted by: stig at September 6, 2011 05:35 PM

It's hard to imagine Obama personally targeting Gibson because they contribute to GOP candidates. If that were the case, he'd have a looong list to get through. He has more important matters to deal with.

There's evidence that Gibson has been knowingly (and repeatedly) subverting the law. We should see how the investigation shakes out before we freak out.

"Gibson may or may not have been using wood produced through the destruction of tropical rainforests; if it was, that may or may not have been inadvertent. But importing illegal tropical hardwoods is, well, illegal, for very good reasons. Small businesses like Gibson Guitar create jobs in part because customers trust them to use wood inlays that don't come from pillaging old-growth forests and driving lemurs extinct. We trust them not to do that, in part, because we trust the US government (unlike many developing-country governments) to enforce its own laws."

This hardly affects me, anyway, because I've never been able to afford a Gibson. However if Ibanez gets raided...

Posted by: Tim at September 11, 2011 05:21 PM

Why was my reply deleted? You can't just sort though articles to find the ones that best represent your paranoid fears about Big Government and ignore the facts behind the case, such as Gibson's history of disregarding import laws.

Not cool, man. Don't be a Ben Weasel.

Posted by: Tim at September 20, 2011 10:30 PM

Tim, I didn't intentionally delete any post. I have recently batch-deleted a lot of spam so your comment probably got caught up in one of the batches.

I'll look for your comment, though it can be difficult to find them in the tens of thousands of spam items. I didn't have a chance to read it. Feel free to repost it if you like.

My general feeling, though, is that too many things are illegal and that includes import regulations which are quite often arbitrary, senseless, and carry ridiculously over-the-top penalties for people who have no possible way of knowing they are in violation of them.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at September 20, 2011 10:38 PM

Okay, Tim, found it.

"Small businesses like Gibson Guitar create jobs in part because customers trust them to use wood inlays that don't come from pillaging old-growth forests and driving lemurs extinct. We trust them not to do that, in part, because we trust the US government (unlike many developing-country governments) to enforce its own laws."

That does not describe my sentiments or expectations, just speaking for myself. Of course, I've never bought a new guitar from Gibson or anyone. But if they really do start doing random inspections using guitars as a pretext (and I sure wouldn't be surprised if they did) don't think the fact that your guitar says Ibanez rather than Gibson will be much protection from abuse by border agents.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at September 20, 2011 10:53 PM

I understand, and I apologize for accusing you of deleting comments on purpose.

I get what you're saying and where you're coming from.

Most regulations make sense to me, and I think they're written with noble intent. It's also easy to find examples of ones that don't make sense (or make too much sense if you follow the money). Supposedly, they tested the stock of lumber and were able to trace it back to Madagascar. I don't think they'll come after guitars that have already been made and sold. But I guess if Al Capone had a Gibson room in his house, that would be the FBI's "in". If you see an example of the rosewood crackdown being used arbitrarily to harass innocent people, post it to your blog, and I'll eat crow.

Hmm. My Weaselrite has a rosewood fretboard and was made in Korea. Who knows what kind of shady dealings went on there? GPC and BW might not have even known where the stock was coming from *nudge, nudge*.

You're still cool.

Posted by: Tim at September 21, 2011 03:06 AM

You knew Mother Jones was going to have something to say about it. We stand with Gibson!*

*Even if Gibson is breaking laws that other American guitar manufacturers don't seem to have problems adhering to.

Posted by: Tim at September 27, 2011 04:21 PM
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