May 18, 2012
Back in the good old days, musicians crossing international borders only had to worry about getting busted for whatever drugs they forgot about before packing. Now they may have reason to worry about getting busted for guitars, too.
That’s because amendments added in 2008 to the 1900 Lacey Act make it illegal to possess certain types of wood. And more than a few guitars were manufactured with wood that is now illegal to use in guitar manufacturing.
Widely hailed by both environmentalists and the timber industry in 2008, the amendments were co-sponsored by Oregon Sen., a Democrat, and Tennessee Sen. , a Republican. On Friday, Alexander went public to stress that the act is not intended “to seize instruments made of wood harvested before 2008,” according to a May 18 Fox News report.
Feds seizing musicians' instruments in some weird ex post facto interpretation of their job description? Why would such a silly notion be floating around, anyway? Because in 2009 and again in 2011, federal agents raided Gibson Guitar factories, using the updated Lacey Act as justification.
When originally passed in 1900, the Lacey Act criminalized trading in protected fish and wildlife. In 2008, it was updated to include plants and trees. The law makes falsifying documentation related to the sale of raw materials – in this case various types of wood – a violation of federal law. As of late 2011, at least one Gibson engineer in Nashville was facing up to five years behind bars.
From the point of view of this music-loving citizen who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans over the years (and even a few third-party candidates), this appears to be at the very least a misallocation of resources, and it may be worse than that.
According to a 2011 report in the Wall Street Journal, the Nashville-based Gibson received wood imports from Madagascar to be used for guitar fingerboards. The wood that was approved by Madagascar officials should not have been OK’d, but nonetheless it was shipped as legal. So how is Gibson responsible for the illegality of wood that was processed and shipped from a country where officials declared it to be legal?
It’s Catch-22 and 1984 all rolled into one, with someone at the federal level making the decision to enforce the act in a way that, quite frankly, could understandably get the musicians worried.
According to the Fox News article: (T)he U.S. Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter assuring musicians that they would not be targeted for “unknowingly” possessing instruments that were manufactured from illegal wood.
Unknowingly? That seems to leave room for a nitpicky agent to imply that a musician should know where a given guitar's wood came from.
Gibson has a history of supporting environmental sustainability while also recognizing the need for responsible timber management and has since quit buying wood from Madagascar. But the issue is not confined to just one country. India, and perhaps other nations, may also be guilty of mislabeling wood sent to the guitar factory.
Whatever the reason behind the Justice Department’s decision to go after Gibson, Alexander said he hopes to “reduce confusion, uncertainty and paperwork for wood importers and musical instrument manufacturers through administrative regulation.” He and Wyden plan to clarify the intention of the act with a letter to the DOJ. Alexander said if those efforts fail, they will move to amend the law.
That’s an admirable stance for the senators to take, and The Punditty Project applauds Alexander and Wyden for doing the right thing in preventing misinterpretation of the law from wreaking havoc on an entire industry. In the meantime, the first musician to have a guitar seized between here and Canada could pose a real public relations problem for President Obama – especially if he or she happens to be a Republican.
Here’s a case where a little preventive presidential leadership could go a long way. If Obama can make a pronouncement on something as contentious as same-sex marriage, if he can sing like(not really – no one can croon like Rev. Al), then he can certainly side with Wyden and Alexander on the issue of musicians not having their guitars seized at the border because of a misinterpreted law. Obama could probably even work it into a weekend address in the very near future. That, and maybe a phone call or two to the right people in the DOJ, could save him a political embarrassment in the event an over-zealous agent ever does seize the “illegal” guitar of a high-profile musician.
SOURCES AND RESOURCES:
Law could be used to seize musicians’ guitars, may need ‘fix,” senator says, FOX News, May 18, 2012
Gibson Guitar wails on federal raid over wood, WSJ online, Sept. 1, 2011
The Lacey Act, Wikipedia entry
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