While the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is in the third week of mulling over what to do about NBC anchor David Gregory flouting the District’s firearms laws on national television, a U.S. Army veteran is still grappling with the fallout from his arrest on the same charge.
James Brinkley, a federal government employee, was arrested in September on two counts of possession of “high capacity” magazines and one for having an unregistered weapon. He fought the charges and won, but he’s still out his legal fees and officials haven’t yet returned his gun.
Mr. Brinkley noted that the D.C. police firearms registry website does not say that so-called high-capacity magazines (over 10 rounds) are illegal to transport. That’s because they are not. They are banned from being possessed in the District, and Mr. Gregory knew that when he brandished a 30-round rifle magazine on his show during an interview with the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre on Dec. 23.
Mr. Brinkley believes the NBC anchor is receiving special treatment because of his high-profile job. “I’m an average person,” said Mr. Brinkley. “There seems to be a law for us and a law for the upper echelon. I got arrested — and my magazines weren’t in the gun — and Gregory has not gotten arrested. They say it’s an ‘ongoing investigation.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if they said, ‘We decided not to place him under arrest’ — even though it’s against the law in D.C.”
Family trip to the White House
On the day of his arrest on Sept. 8, Mr. Brinkley had been dropping his wife and young children at the White House for a tour. He was on the list to attend as well, but dropped out of the family outing when he found out that he couldn’t talk to President Obama. The Maryland resident had done so at the Christmas tree lighting the year before and had more to tell him. Instead, the 53-year-old decided to spend some time at the gun range while his family went to the White House.
Just like Mr. Gregory, Mr. Brinkley called MPD in advance to ask for guidance on legally transporting his gun during the drop off. The police told that the gun had to be unloaded and locked in the trunk, and he couldn’t park the car and walk around. (The District’s transport law mirrors federal law in this respect.) Unlike Mr. Gregory, who apparently disregarded the response provided by the police, Mr. Brinkley followed the police orders exactly.
Mr. Brinkley is one of the rare individuals who qualified for a concealed carry permit in Maryland. He put an empty holster on his side because he was going to be training with it at the range to take the U.S. Marshal test. He put his empty, Glock 22 in a box with a big padlock in the trunk of his Dodge Charger under a gym bag and stroller. He removed from the firearm the two 15-round magazines that came with the gun. He did not have any ammunition with him.
“Guns don’t solve everything,” Mr. Brinkley told me in an exclusive interview. “I carry it for defense and for work, but it’s my last choice to take someone’s life. If I’m forced to defend myself and my family, I will. If my gun makes you go away and gives us another day, that’s a good thing too.”
When the Brinkley family got to the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Ave, NW at around 11 a.m., Mr. Brinkley was concerned about leaving his wife with his 6-year-old and 5-month-old in case the car carrier for the baby was not allowed in the White House.
Since strollers are not allowed, his wife began to take the infant’s car seat out of the back to carry inside. When Mr. Brinkley pulled over to ask a Secret Service officer for guidance on the baby carrier, he was accused of driving with the child unrestrained and was told to show his license and registration.
Mr. Brinkley’s car was new, so the registration papers were still in the trunk. When the Virginia native got out to find the paper, the officer saw his empty holster and asked if he had a gun. Having been assured by the police that he was legally transporting, he said yes. “I said that the gun I carry is at home, and there’s a gun in the trunk,” he recalled in an interview Monday.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, Ed Donovan, asserts that Mr. Brinkley only admitted to having a gun at home, and that his wife told the officer about the firearm locked in the trunk. How the gun was discovered in the search, however, is not relevant to the case.
Arrested and jailed
Meanwhile, as the Secret Service ran his driver’s license, the officer said that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Mr. Brinkley demanded to be told what was the reason, and it turned out to be for an unpaid traffic ticket in D.C. Mr. Brinkley had appealed the ticket, but instead of registering that in the system, the District sent notice to Maryland that he had unpaid ticket and the Free State suspended his license without notifying him. He later learned that there had never been a warrant issued for his arrest
That’s when things went awry. The officer put Mr. Brinkley in handcuffs and said he had to stay there until a “crime scene” person arrived. The midday, weekend situation quickly turned into a circus.
“I’ve never seen that many federal agents at one time in my whole life,” he recalled. “ATF showed up. U.S. Marshals showed up. Secret Service. Homeland security. They had me surrounded with lights, SUVs, police cars, in the height of day with tourists standing around taking pictures of me handcuffed and without shoes.”
He was very concerned that the photos or the arrest would get back to his employer. “I said, ‘I’m a federal employee, at least put me in the car.’ They just said, ‘You’ll be alright.” They kept him standing on the street for two and a half hours.
He was taken to the District 2 police precinct, where, according to Mr. Brinkley, the D.C. police disputed the charge by the federal officers. “The police said, ‘This is not our arrest. He transported the way it was specified,’” recalled Mr. Brinkley. The Secret Service’s Mr. Donovan asserted Friday that, “We feel it was a valid arrest, and the appropriate charges were brought.”
Mr. Brinkley was booked, fingerprinted, photographed and thrown in jail. He was charged with possession of an unregistered gun and driving on a suspended license. He was also charged with possessing two “high-capacity” magazines, which of course are the standard ones that come with the handgun. His attorney, Richard Gardiner, pointed out that these are the same make and model magazines carried by D.C. police who were holding him.
The veteran was kept in the holding cell until 5 p.m., when he was released to his family, who had taken the car from the scene at the White House. On his way out the door, he was given a citation for not having his baby in a child restraint in the car. He contested that in traffic court himself on Nov. 1, and the charge was thrown out.
Fighting the charges
A member of the National Rifle Association, Mr. Brinkley found Mr. Gardiner by calling the association for a recommendation for an attorney who specialized in firearms charges in the District. Mr. Brinkley was less concerned about legal fees than keeping his job, for which he has high-level security clearance.
“I’ll pay what it takes. I’m facing a gun charge. I’m not walking into court myself,” he told me. “This isn’t a parking ticket.”
Despite all the evidence showing Mr. Brinkley was legally transporting his guns, Mr. Gardiner said the District’s Office of the Attorney General “wouldn’t drop it.” This is the same office showing apparent reluctance to prosecute Mr. Gregory — if Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier ever arrests him.
The prosecutors offered Mr. Brinkley a deal that meant he would have to admit he committed a lesser crime. He turned it down. “He refused to plead guilty,” said Mr. Gardiner. “He told me that he checked with the police and did exactly what he was told.”
“I hadn’t done anything wrong,” explained Mr. Brinkley. “I made a phone call and asked first about getting the right instructions from the police department. I felt in my heart I was doing the right thing. I was going to stand up no matter what the outcome will be.”
The overly-restrictive firearms laws written by the D.C. city council are to blame for this mess. “The system turns law-abiding citizens into criminals and felons,” he told me. “We’re following the rules — that they established — to the letter of the law. So why are you still arresting us as we’re just passing through the District?”
Mr. Brinkley went to court several times, but his trial came on Dec. 4. He said the experience was terrifying.
“I thought I was going to lose because the prosecutor was so rough. She was coming at me like I’d shot somebody,” he said of Assistant Attorney General Rachel Bohlen. “I thought, God, I’m on trial for real.”
Ms. Bohlen kept insisting that Mr. Brinkley was planning to stay in the city, or that he that he could have gone home and gotten the gun and then gone to the range, and was therefore not legally transporting.
During the trial, three Secret Service officers testified that he always said he was passing through on the way to the range. According to Mr. Brinkley, “that seemed to anger her.” Ms. Bohlen also tried to convince Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Carroll Wingo of D.C.’s Superior Court that Mr. Brinkley had access to the unloaded gun while he was in the car by somehow reaching behind him, unlatching the back seat, pulling it down and then reaching through to the trunk to get the padlocked case.
By the time Judge Wingo was ready to rule in the afternoon, Mr. Brinkley was already mentally preparing for a bad decision. “As the judge was talking, I was sitting there and thinking of my last statement to prepare to take it to the next level,” he said. “Even if I was found guilty, I was going to appeal it.”
However, in an extensive 15-minute long decision, the judge explained all the reasons why Mr. Brinkley had met the burden of proving he had been legally transporting the firearm. Judge Wingo acquitted him of all the firearms charges, including the “high-capacity” magazines. (He was found guilty of driving without a valid license and fined $50, which was suspended.)
Mr. Brinkley, though, didn’t hear the ruling because he was so preoccupied with planning his next step. “I was scared. I’ll be honest with you,” he conceded. The Army vet stood up to plead his case for appeal, but Mr. Gardiner touched his client’s shoulder and said, “You were found not guilty.”
A spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, Ted Gest, responded moments after Mr. Donovan with the exact same quote about a “valid arrest” and prosecution. Despite Mr. Brinkley being acquitted of all charges, Mr. Gest insisted that the ruling “doesn’t mean the judge is right, and we’re wrong. This happens all the time in the criminal justice system.”
Mr. Brinkley points out the hypocrisy of how these absurdly complicated laws are enforced on the honest instead of the crooks. “I think it’s a system built on harming people rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
On the need for people to be armed, Mr. Brinkley said that, “There’s so much violence in DC. I’ve never lived this close to a place where people are getting shot all the time.”
Police chief appears to be protecting NBC’s David Gregory
Unlike most of the rest of the country, violent crime in D.C. was up 3 percent in 2012 and assaults with a deadly weapon were up 6 percent. Before Chief Lanier took down the crime map stats in the fall, assaults with a gun were up 20 percent. Her spokesman, Gwendolyn Crump, could not give the final statistic for year end.
Asked how many people were arrested in 2012 for “high capacity magazines,” it took the police department five days to tell me that there were “more than” 105 arrests for possession last year. One of those was Mr. Brinkley, but none were Mr. Gregory.
Mr. Brinkley was publicly humiliated and thrown in jail. He was forced to spend time and money to defend himself for violating the same exact law that millions of viewers watched the NBC anchor violate. It’s wrong for Mr. Gregory to get special treatment.
The bigger issue is that the nation’s capital is using all its resources to persecute law-abiding gun owners instead of focusing its manpower on the bad guys. It’s time for the city council to get rid of these pointless gun laws so the police can be freed up to go after the real criminals.
CLICK HERE to read another story about a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who was jailed in D.C. for just possessing unregistered ammunition, unlike Mr. Gregory. MILLER: Two Systems of Justice
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times. Her “Emily Gets Her Gun” series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.