By Wesley Hartman
In the autumn of 2010 I was 19 years old. I worked for Taco Bell. I had no car and I typically rode my bicycle the six or so miles to and from work. I hated it. I hate fast food, and I hate bicycles. They are a pain in the ass, and it was only a matter of speed that kept me riding one. I had to ride through some less-than-savory parts of my town on my route to work. During the day, this was no problem, but since I usually ended my shift late at night, I was uncomfortable making the trip unarmed. I didn’t have an Indiana carry permit, which is required for any form of carry in Indiana. I did, however, have . . .
a black powder revolver, a reproduction of a Colt Model 1851 in .44 caliber. After checking the laws and discovering that even current-production black powder weapons were not considered firearms under Indiana or federal law, I thought that might be a viable option. Not optimal, but acceptable until I got the scratch together to pay for my permit in the Hoosier State.
I would like to preface the following story with the fact that I had never been in trouble with the law prior to the events I will describe, and I have never been in trouble with the law since.
I took the pistol with me on a couple of rides, being very careful to hide it well in my backpack while at work. It was unloaded at this time because I was very slim on funds and wanted to get a feel for it. Yes, I understand that I was very, very stupid. Incredibly stupid. Impossibly stupid. To even think an unloaded firearm of any sort was a good idea was a colossal mistake. I understand that now. It’s not something I’m proud of.
One night in the early days of November, I was riding home with this revolver on my hip underneath my jacket. I was riding in the street because bicycles aren’t permitted on public sidewalks. A siren went off briefly behind me, and red-and-blue lights were flashing all about. My heart rate skyrocketed.
I stepped off the bike as the officer approached. He asked me what I was doing riding in the street. I told him that, as I understood it, bicycles were not permitted on the sidewalk. He told me that it was technically true, but that this late at night it could and would be overlooked. Then I got even stupider.
I believed he was going to search me, so I told him about the revolver on my hip. Yes, I know…STFU. But I didn’t know that then and I figured that if he was going to search me anyway, then I better tell him right up front to avoid any nasty surprises.
His hand went to the butt of his weapon and he instructed me to keep my hands up. He asked me where it was, and I told him, punctuating it by nodding my head towards the revolver. To the officer’s credit, he never drew his weapon as he pulled mine from its holster. His buddy, who pulled up shortly after he’d confiscated the weapon, proceeded to pat me down, and discovered two of my pocket knives, which weren’t really an issue. I was then cuffed and detained as they searched my backpack. One of the officers and I discussed the stupidity of federal gun laws.
A third officer pulled up (must have been a really slow night) and he proceeded to berate me for being a complete idiot for not only carrying a weapon without a permit but for carrying an unloaded weapon without a permit. I made a brief attempt to explain my thought process, that black-powder reproductions weren’t considered firearms as I understood it, but I didn’t push it too hard.
They finished searching my stuff, and they called the owner of the bike that I was riding. I had borrowed it from a friend. To make matters more awkward, the friend in question was the son of our deputy police chief, and the officer who made the initial stop and made the arrest was the brother of one of my English teachers in high school. At that moment, I hated living in a smallish town.
My rights were read, and I was arrested and placed in the back of the cruiser. After the bike was picked up, the arresting officer climbed into the driver’s seat and we started towards the county jail. I asked so many questions of him that he must have been ready to pull his hair out by the time we arrived. The foremost of which was: can I ever own firearms after this? He told me that yes, I probably could because I was only being charged with a Class A Misdemeanor, Carrying a Firearm without a Permit.
This didn’t really put me at ease, honestly. I know now that cops aren’t always legal experts, and I knew it then too. Still, it gave me some hope.
The processing was uneventful.I underwent a second search, and the guard processing me was pleasant enough. I made my one phone call. The officer made it very well known how cooperative I was, and I was placed in a cell with two of their “best” inmates: marijuana arrests. My roommates were actually some very pleasant people, and they were kind to a very frightened 19-year-old who’s worst offense up until this night had been a couple of automotive moving violations.
I was able to post bond the next day and I spent the next few months going to group hearings and meeting with my public defender. He was just about as useful to me as a bicycle would be to a fish. By the time February rolled around, the prosecutor offered me a plea agreement which entailed 20 hours of community service, one year of unsupervised probation (the “Just Don’t Get In Trouble Again” clause), and to “attempt to acquire an Indiana carry permit”.
I agreed to the bargain because it seemed a hell of a lot better than sitting in jail for a year and being fined $5,000. The judge was a very fair man with a stern demeanor and a hook for a hand. During the guilty plea hearing, he actually asked the prosecutor to remove the community service requirement because I had never been in trouble and had just made a mistake. When given the opportunity to speak, I asked if I would ever be able to get a permit to carry, and he told me that he honestly didn’t know, but it was the attempt that counted. They set a “compliance hearing” for two weeks after my guilty plea hearing, and sent me on my way.
I started the process to acquire my permit that same day, and by the week’s end I had completed everything I could. Now it was a matter of waiting to see if I’d actually get one. The date of the compliance hearing rolled around and I’d received no word. I attended with all of my documentation and presented it to the judge. He looked me in the eye, as he did in every other hearing, thanked me, and said “I don’t expect to see you in here again. Don’t prove me wrong.” I assured him I wouldn’t.
When I arrived home from the hearing, my father informed me that I had mail waiting for me, and that he wasn’t sure what it was. Intrigued, I picked up the envelope and carefully tore it open to reveal a brand new Indiana License to Carry a Handgun, valid for my lifetime with no requirement for renewal.
All in all, my experience with the American justice system could have been much, much worse. It also could have been avoided entirely if I hadn’t been such a complete moron when I was 19 years old. It turned out better than expected. Still, I was able to take some very good lessons from this:
1) Deciding to STFU is a great idea, but if you are arrested, be as cooperative as possible. It will help you in the long run.
2) If you feel the need to carry, do so legally. With a permit, if your state requires it.
3) Public Defenders are pretty worthless, so it helps to have a bullet-proof case for your innocence.
4) People who have done nothing worse than smoke weed are preferred cellmates.
In case anyone is curious, I can still buy firearms. There isn’t even a delay when they run my background check. It has, however, been difficult in some cases to get a job because of the misdemeanor. Many employers wouldn’t give me a second look when they got to that part of my application. Finally, don’t trust the legal fact that “black-powder antiques or firing reproductions” are exempt from firearms legislation. In my experience, they’re not when it counts.