Chris Christie commutes gun sentence of Brian Aitken

We haven’t covered Aitken’s case (except for a lone Headline item a few weeks ago), but he’s a cause celebre among libertarians and Second Amendment fans — for good reason. In a nutshell: He bought three guns, entirely legally, when he was living in Colorado and brought them back to New Jersey with him when he moved home to be closer to his son. To make sure he had his i’s dotted and t’s crossed, he called New Jersey police for guidance on how to transport them. He had the guns in the trunk of his car, unloaded and safely locked in a case, and was allegedly en route to his new home in Hoboken when he got a call from New Jersey police asking him to drive to his mother’s home. She had phoned them because she was worried that Aitken was suicidal; when he arrived, the cops arrested him for possessing handguns without a permit. But wait, you say — isn’t it legal to drive your guns from one residence to another? Radley Balko at Reason wondered the same thing:

Yet Judge Morley wouldn’t allow Aitken to claim the exemption for transporting guns between residences. He wouldn’t even let the jury know about it. During deliberations, the jurors asked three times about exceptions to the law, which suggests they weren’t comfortable convicting Aitken. Morley refused to answer them all three times. Gilbert and Nappen, Aitken’s lawyers, say he also should have been protected by a federal law that forbids states from prosecuting gun owners who are transporting guns between residences. Morley would not let Aitken cite that provision either…

In a telephone interview, Morley (who lost his job when Gov. Christie declined to reappoint him in June because of rulings in unrelated cases) says he didn’t allow the jury to consider the moving exception because “it wasn’t relevant.” Echoing the prosecutor’s office, Morley says: “There was no evidence that Mr. Aitken was moving. He was trying to argue that the law should give him this broad window extending over several weeks to justify driving around with guns in his car. There was also some evidence that Mr. Aitken wasn’t moving at all when he was arrested, but had stored the guns in his car because his roommate was throwing a party, and he didn’t want the guns in the apartment while guests were there drinking.”

As Balko notes, whether Aitken was driving home or just driving around with guns is a question of fact, not of law; there’s no reason not to inform the jury of the exemption and let them decide what happened. But then, Morley also didn’t let the jury know that Aitken had called police in advance to make sure he was transporting his guns properly. (For more on the judge, read down to the end of this piece on Aitken to see which ruling led Christie to dump him from the bench.) Left with no grounds to acquit the guy, the jury convicted him of unlawful possession and sentenced him … to seven years in prison. A perfect ending to a perfectly Kafkaesque story.

Until now:

Brian Aitken, who was convicted of illegally possessing two handguns that he had legally purchased in Colorado, will be spending Christmas out of prison.

Gov. Chris Christie commuted Aitken’s sentence, from seven years to time served, according to an order the governor signed today.

Aitken had appealed to Christie for commutation after being sentenced in August. According to the commutation order, Aitken will be released as “soon administratively possible.”

Good politics and good policy. Conservatives will love him for it, and blue-state voters get a lesson on what can happen when gun laws turn draconian. Here’s a segment from NRA News recorded 10 days ago marveling at just ridiculous the case is. Exit question: Why commute his sentence instead of pardoning him outright?