All the contemporary blather about “red flag” laws aimed at firearms ownership has me musing how much nasty mischief unethical authorities can cause under “color of law” when such laws are in force. Oddly enough, the connection occurred to me watching an Australian detective movie about a powerful man getting away with a sexually motivated murder. The weary old top cop told his angry detectives that’s just the way the world works and always has; you have to learn to live with it. Awoke memories of a long-ago abuse of power I didn’t do much to stop.
The more hasty well-intentioned laws are rushed into force, the more playing room for the wicked, the mendacious, the powerful. And in America, the knee-jerk reaction to sensationalist news coverage of crime always seems to be “there oughta be a (nother) law.” As if politicians weren’t already churning out thousands of laws every year to justify their nickname: lawmakers.
In the 1960s my favorite uncle was one of the first Republican state legislators in Georgia since Reconstruction. Southern Democrats had a stranglehold since the Yankee Occupation ended, so he filed as GOP almost on a lark. And won, and kept on winning until the Nixon debacle sank all boats. Something of a stand-up comedian, his most popular speech was one closing a session in Atlanta. He pontificated upon the several hundred new laws just passed, paused for dramatic effect, and delivered the punch line: Now how we managed to survive until now without these (hundreds of) new laws, I will never know! Wish I could have been there that day, to witness the moment of stunned silence, followed by cascading guffaws and applause, to prove even politicians can laugh at themselves.
A decade later I witnessed evidence to the extreme contrary: politicians who, as my Georgia grandfather would say, think their shit don’t stink. Or as France’s Sun King, Louis XIV would say, L’etat, c’est moi. This was in Washington State of all places, which promoted itself as politically correct before politically correct was cool.
In 1976, a young state-legislative intern for the Senate Judiciary Chair told his boss to tell his political ally, the governor’s top aide (Think Nixon’s Kissinger) to stop sexually harassing the intern’s girlfriend, another intern. He didn’t use the term; it wasn’t in vogue then. He just accused the middle-aged, married, power-broker of pressuring his girlfriend to go to bed with him.
Powerful pols don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t need no steenkin’ red-flag law. Almost before the young man could turn around, he was committed to a mental hospital on an involuntary 90-day hold. The excuse? When his boss ordered him removed from the office for daring to threaten to expose the lecherous governor’s man, he was wearing a duly licensed concealed pistol. Antigun sentiment already was abroad in the land so the pols figured their involuntary-commitment move was safe. Hey, anyone carrying a gun has to be crazy, right? Ipso facto.
The powerful gubernatorial aide was rid of the troublesome intern, his lecherous pursuit of the intern’s girlfriend no longer impeded. Just imagine how much mischief actual red-flag laws will enable for perfidious individuals who don’t happen to have government clout. They can use the cops to invade the privacy of anyone with a firearm: romantic rivals, people who park in their spot, or play loud music, or display Confederate flags or Trump posters.
Interestingly enough, bedrock democratic principles should have protected the intern. The Senate Chair’s first move to curry favor with the governor’s man was to direct campus-security troopers to deliver his intern to the county prosecutor, to be charged with violation of a 1960s Washington Administrative Code forbidding weapons on the capitol campus. The code had just — materialized — with no legislative authority when openly armed Black Panthers staged a protest march on the campus. Remember: L’etat, c’est moi. News coverage was — of course — sensationalist. Panthers were painted as the terrifying, civilization-threatening boogeymen of their time that potential school shooters are today, so anything went. It was “understood” in corridors of power the rule only applied to black militants.
The sixties passed. The weapons WAC (Washington Administrative Code) gathered dust until 1976, when the Senate Chair ordered the County Prosecutor to charge his intern under its provisions. A non-starter. The prosecuting attorney refused to file charges. There was no legislative authority for the Panther-inspired administrative code. Troopers bringing the kid to jail said the prosecutor literally laughed at them, and the Chairman’s delusions of his own power. (Didn’t hurt the prosecutor was from a different party.)
That should have been the end of it. But so much of political wheeling and dealing is defined by what one political commentator called “a slow seepage of understandings.” Who knows what phone calls were exchanged, who participated? The intern wound up in the mental ward without further ado.
This little abuse of power might never have surfaced but for an odd detail.
The story began to leak when a Seattle-area state senator started getting what he called “hate mail” from hunters and gun-owners who elected him. They felt betrayed by an antigun senate bill showing him as prime sponsor.
Following the old Panther administrative code, the bill would ban firearms, knives, all weapons from the grounds of the Legislature. The junior senator said if a hunter wanted to visit his rep and had a rifle in his pickup, he faced a year in jail for parking on campus. Same for a fisherman with a Rapala fillet knife in his tackle box in his vehicle. No exceptions for skin color anymore.
The junior senator whose name was on the bill said it was difficult to explain what happened to ordinary folks. He, in fact, led the floor fight against his own bill, and voted against it.
He had sponsored a senate bill with the same number as the one he fought. But not this senate bill.
A big hot-button issue in the seventies was judiciary and parole-board leniency toward violent felons. He already had sponsored a successful measure for heavy mandatory sentencing for convicted rapists. The bill he fought had started as a measure to extend mandated sentencing to other violent crimes like kidnapping, armed robbery, first-degree assault. The Senate Judiciary Committee, for whatever reason, bottled it in committee. There it sat until the Judiciary Chair was snubbed by the County Prosecutor.
The filing deadline for new bills had passed, so the Chairman “scalped” the existing bill. A term of art for trashing its entire content and replacing it with the same prohibitions as the old Panther rule. He kept only the number and sponsor.
The Chairman called it “post facto” (by a decade!) authorization of the Panther rule. He didn’t count on the junior senator breaking ranks and blowing the whistle. When queried about the Chairman’s motives, the offended junior senator said he’d heard the Chairman had some new-found concern about weapons on campus.
And the story began to unfold.
Troopers who escorted the intern from the Chairman’s office said he politely mentioned a loaded Browning Hi Power under his jacket, removed it, removed its magazine, cleared the chamber, and handed it over along with a photostat of his carry license. They emphasized his calm and politeness. But when they told the Chairman the kid had a gun when he demanded the powerful lecher lay off, the Chairman freaked. When the county prosecutor wouldn’t play ball, the Chairman went another route — the mental-heath dodge. By the time the story began to emerge, the intern had been committed to Western State Hospital on a “psych hold”.
A fictionalized chapter in my novel Newspaper Gypsy picks up the tale twenty years later:
It was 1996 and Buck hadn’t been a newspaperman for twenty years…having decided the security of a civil-service job was better for raising children than the life of a newspaper gypsy, he now was the civilian spokesman for the State Patrol.
Patrol employees, active and retired, formed a largely close-knit clan all its own, he discovered, including elected sheriffs and appointed agency directors who were retired troopers. One of those directors was a salty old Patrol colonel that Buck had questioned twenty years ago for a news story about a scalped Senate bill that embarrassed a political friend of Buck’s then-publisher.
The colonel was double-dipping as director of a small agency that dispensed federal highway dollars to state agencies. He had pushed some taxpayer largess to the Liquor Control Board when Buck worked there and was appointed to an inter-agency committee chaired by the colonel. He enlisted his Board members in the anti-drunk driving crusades of the seventies. When the Liquor Board spoke, liquor licensees paid attention as they did not to highway cops or the fledgling Mothers against Drunk Driving.
The high crusade against drunk drivers was almost as much fun as the topless-tavern wars the Board eventually won by banning topless table dances in liquor establishments, putting a severe crimp in local underworld revenues. The Kansas City goons who gunned down their liquor inspector were caught in Thailand and brought back to trial.
Buck had turned himself into a consummate bureaucrat in the years since the old Patrol colonel knew him as a reporter. He helped organize the first free holiday cab rides home for over-imbibers (the cab companies paid by federal bucks). He pushed for, and got, a computer program linked to new Patrol breathalyzers statewide. Every Monday the Board’s enforcement division received a list of liquor licensees that had put drunks behind the wheel the preceding week. He sometimes thought he was turning into Big Brother.
Given his angst about that, it was pleasant the old colonel still thought of him as a hard-nosed newsman. At one of the endless string of retiree luncheons and promotion-ceremonies and funerals that was a feature of Patrol culture, Buck and the old colonel were sharing present-day Patrol gossip — which Buck sometimes thought was the real reason for all the gatherings. Buck happened to mention he was impressed by the colonel’s immediately recognizing a Liquor Board employee as the reporter on that two-decade-old story. It had been their sole previous contact, and that only by phone.
“Aw, I’m like old cops everywhere,” the colonel said. “I never forget loose threads. I never was satisfied back then that it was just Sen. Graben who turned you loose on us.”
“How come?” Buck said.
Graben was the junior senator, and friend of Buck’s publisher back then, whose bill was scalped out of all resemblance to his original legislation in a power play by the judicial committee chairman.
“When your story hit in Olympia,” the colonel said now, “you never saw such backing and filling. They snatched that young man out of Western State and shipped him to the Eastern Washington mental facility at Medical Lake so he could be near his folks until they got him out of there. They’re Eastern Washingtonians.”
The young man in question had been a political intern of the judiciary committee chairman, and had objected to his boss about the governor’s senior staff aide hitting on his intern girlfriend.
“I know he was transferred.” Buck was gratified his story, weak as it had been, was given credit for the move. “His folks used to run a fishing resort over there. When I was an outdoor writer, I used to call them weekly for trout-fishing updates.”
The old colonel smacked his forehead. “Hell! They were some of your newspaper’s people. Of course you came after us like gangbusters…”
Buck had to smile if the old man thought that long-ago effort was Buck’s idea of going gangbusters as a reporter. He vividly remembered his frustration at not being able to force the story home to the governor’s office where it belonged. The publisher had called a halt after Buck’s story exposed the Chairman’s legislative maneuvering and cleared the junior senator of any responsibility for the bill with his name still on it.
“I don’t like loose ends any more than old cops,” Buck said now. “Did you really try to get the county prosecutor to charge the kid with carrying a firearm on campus under that administrative code?”
“I cringed when I read the Chairman’s quotes in your story back then,” the colonel said. “Anybody in the know would recognize a bald-faced lie when they read it. That old Black Panther code was just so much 1960s political theater. Dust in the wind. It had no legal standing in the seventies.”
Buck laughed. “Did you just say dust in the wind?”
“Always liked that song. My inner hippy.” The old colonel smiled.
“You actually read my story back then?”
The old man snorted. “It was required reading. A copy was routed around to us all by the chief. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“The other shoe being the governor’s man sniffing after a young skirt, and her boyfriend being removed from the equation to give him a clear shot,” Buck said.
“I knew you knew,” the colonel said.
“My main job was to protect Senator Graben from his angry supporters,” Buck said. He heard the defensiveness in his voice even now.
“And get the boy closer to his parents, yes I understand that now.” The colonel wagged his head. “Me and the other guys at the Patrol sure hated to see that nice polite young man shipped off to a mental hospital,” he added. “He had committed no illegal act, been charged with no crime, and was never adjudged mentally ill.”
“Wait,” said Buck. “How could there be a court-ordered commitment without a judgment of mental illness?”
The old man snorted. “See? I knew you had it, when you pressed me back then about which court ordered the commitment. There was no court hearing and you knew it. That’s why I got so careful there.”
“Somebody ordered him into the mental ward,” Buck said. But for a bad moment he wondered if even that had been true. He had been pulled off the story with far too much left dangling.
“The commitment order was issued by the director of Western State.”
“Tell me you’re kidding,” Buck said. “That director is a political appointee of the governor. Whose key staff aide was after the kid’s girlfriend.”
The old colonel patted Buck’s shoulder. “You don’t have to play cagey all these years later, Buck. I knew you knew the score.”
“The governor’s skirt-chasing top man,” Buck said slowly, “asked the political appointee to rid him of the troublesome intern. After their pet senator couldn’t get him put in jail for carrying a gun because he was legally licensed to carry it.” Buck felt actively ill. Even his outdoor newspaper could have wrecked those conniving assholes with a story like that. The wire services would have had to pick it up.
“I doubt there was ever any memo of that conversation,” the colonel said. “That’s why you didn’t report it back then, huh — no smoking gun?”
“Maybe there should have been,” Buck said grimly. “The Browning under that kid’s arm that got the Chairman all upset. Then we wouldn’t have a sexual predator on the state supreme court.”
“Now, now, Buck. We didn’t have sexual harassment back then.”
“Right. What was it then?”
“Well, we did, but nobody called it that.”
“Ah don’t take on so, Buck. Believe me, you put your thumb on the scales plenty. As soon as you descended on us, they shipped the young man away from the Western State gulag and everybody started ducking and weaving.”
Buck blinked. “You like colorful phrases,” he said. “But you’re right: mental commitment for somebody the administration sees as a trouble-maker is like a damn Russian gulag story. But with Republicans instead of Communists.”
“Once your story hit, everybody wanted shut of the whole business,” the colonel chuckled. “But the state’s lawyers were afraid for the hospital to just turn him loose immediately. They said that would constitute an admission of error and wrongful imprisonment. That a civil attorney for the family could beat the state’s head in. Major taxpayer dollars down the drain, especially after discovery established that a non-doctor ordered the commitment.”
“Goddamn it,” Buck said. He didn’t feel like a bureaucrat now, he felt like an enraged reporter. “It could have been a hell of a story.”
“They’d have paid a big settlement to prevent going to trial, you bet,” the colonel said. “Attorney General said the best they could do to contain the damage was ship him near his parents, make nice to everybody, go through the motions of an evaluation and kick him loose. At least the young man didn’t do the full ninety days. He might have been crazy after that. And his girl quit her intern job and went home to be with him.”
“Not much of a result,” Buck said.
“But better than none,” the old man said. “Oh — and the Western State guy who committed the young man? He resigned within a month and went elsewhere. Probably just coincidence. Then again it could have been the price the AG charged for carrying the governor’s water.” He chuckled again.
“But the lecherous married asshole who caused it all sits on the high bench, judging everybody else,” Buck said bitterly.
“The way of the world, Buck, the way of the world. You did all you could do. He still has to stand for election, like all the other justices. Believe me when I tell you that his handlers gave him a thorough talking-to about keeping it zipped when he was appointed to fill out that first term.”
“Leopards don’t change their spots.”
“H’mm. Maybe. But think about this, Buck: every election cycle, Hizzoner may still be waiting for that other shoe to drop. There’s no statute of limitations on a guilty conscience, Buck.”
“Maybe,” Buck conceded.
“From all I hear,” the colonel said, “he now leads a very circumspect life.”
“You mean he’s still looking over his shoulder,” Buck said. “That’s pretty cold comfort.”
“Sometimes cold comfort is the only comfort there is,” the old cop said.