What Every Gun Owner Should Know about Being Falsely Accused
According to Michelle Gesse, being a gun owner puts you at increased risk for being falsely accused of a crime. (She should know—it happened to her husband!) Here, she shares what you should know about being falsely accused, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Boulder, CO (September 2012)—If you own a gun and consider yourself to be an upstanding, law-abiding citizen, you probably haven’t given much thought to being targeted or profiled because you own firearms. After all, as long as they’re legal and you don’t use them inappropriately, you have nothing to fear, right?
Wrong. According to Michelle Gesse, whose husband, Steven, was falsely accused of threatening another man with one of the couple’s guns, owning a gun means that you could be charged with using it against another person—even if you have never used the gun as a weapon, have never exhibited violent behavior, and have no witnesses other than the accuser. The nightmare the Gesses lived through in trying to clear Steven’s name is something every gun owner should be aware of—and prepare for.
“After what we thought was a cordial dinner party at our home, a neighbor’s son returned to our house and demanded that my husband, Steven, accompany him home and apologize to his mother about a comment he had made earlier in the evening—which Steven did,” recalls Gesse, author of the new book Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Johnson Books, March 2012, ISBN: 978-1-55566-450-3, $17.95). “We were shocked later that night when law enforcement officers arrived at our home to arrest Steven and search our house. As it turned out, our neighbor’s son had falsely accused Steven of threatening him with a gun after the apology.”
(As a side note, the gun Steven had supposedly hidden in the back of his pants and used to threaten the accuser was a Thompson Centerfire Contender—an 18-inch, five-pound firearm that holds only one bullet. Not exactly a logical choice—some might even say an absurd choice—to conceal and carry.)
“Following Steven’s accusation, he was treated as though he had already been found guilty by the justice system and by the press,” Michelle reports. “For seven months, Steven had to meet multiple bail conditions, like not traveling out of state without permission and having to appear for random breathalyzer tests. Meanwhile, we were in and out of court, and we had to spend a small fortune proving his innocence. That’s not what I had pictured ‘justice’ to be before experience taught me otherwise.”
On October 28, 2009, Steven Gesse was found not guilty of Felony Menacing and Prohibited Use of a Weapon by a jury. Yet being exonerated did not make up for the fact that he had been treated like a convicted felon. The unfairness of it all set Michelle Gesse on a mission to shine a spotlight on the injustices of the American justice system—and to make people aware of what to do in case they are ever falsely accused.
“Gun owners especially need to be aware of the fact that they might be falsely accused simply because they possess firearms,” Gesse underscores. “No, it’s not fair. And yes, that event is unlikely, and I sincerely hope it never happens to you. But the fact is, you need to be prepared for the possibility.”
Here, Gesse shares seven things gun owners can do to protect themselves as much as possible in the event that they are ever falsely accused.
Make sure your i’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed. While many places in the United States require relatively little in the way of gun ownership documentation, it’s always smart to make sure that your i’s are dotted and that your t’s are crossed. In addition to the obvious rule—don’t buy illegal firearms—it’s a good idea to keep any receipts or licenses you may have, as well as a list of your firearms’ serial numbers. Also, be vigilant about having any guns you don’t own in your house. For instance, if you have inherited your grandfather’s rifle, check your local laws to make sure you have filled out any required documentation.
“This wasn’t an issue for Steven and me—perhaps because all of the guns in our home belonged to us and were legal,” Gesse comments. “But I can only imagine that things might have gone much worse for us if that hadn’t been the case. When you are in compliance with local laws regarding registration, documentation, types of guns that can be owned, etc., you demonstrate a respect for the law and for the rules.”
Be a stickler for gun safety. This is a rule of thumb that most gun owners take very seriously, but it bears repeating: Don’t joke or play around with guns, even if you are “only” with family or friends. Build a reputation for yourself as someone who always puts safety first. If you haven’t already, you may even want to consider taking a gun safety or concealed carry course (if available) so that you can demonstrate your commitment to being a responsible gun owner. And never, ever take guns out when alcohol is present, whether you’re on your first beer or your fourth.
“The point is, you don’t want to do anything that can give other people even a toehold if they try to make the case that you’re reckless with or uninformed about your firearms,” Gesse says. “The fact that we are very responsible with our guns helped quite a bit at Steven’s trial. In fact, a witness for the prosecution said that he had never seen a gun being handled or outside the locked gun vaults in our house when alcohol was present over the course of many, many years.”
Operate on a need-to-know basis. Yes, you may be proud of being a gun owner/sportsman/collector, etc. And like the Gesses, you may firmly believe that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the Second Amendment, and that you can and should defend yourself with your firearms if necessary. But the fact is, not everyone needs to know about it. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep knowledge of your guns to a need-to-know basis. For instance, you can talk about your new shotgun with your hunting buddies, but your coworkers really don’t need to hear about the purchase.
“The fewer people who know about your guns, the fewer who could use that information against you,” points out Gesse. “Is this rule of thumb unfair? In a perfect world, perhaps. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and an unguarded comment or boast could land you in hot water. In our case, our neighbor’s son knew that we owned guns and hunted. He had actually asked to see some of them during past visits to our home. We had no indication that he would ever use this information to harm us—but he did. It’s very unfortunate that you can’t trust other people to have information like your being a gun owner.”
Watch your mouth. In much the same vein, watch what you say about guns as well as to whom you say it. Except for perhaps your most trusted family members and friends, don’t make jokes or comments about owning and/or using your guns, such as: I’d like to shoot him, She’d better watch out, Don’t mess with me—I have a [insert gun type here], I’m not worried about anything as long as I have my gun within arm’s reach, Protected by Smith & Wesson, etc.
“Again, if you trust your audience and you want to make these types of remarks, that’s all well and good,” says Gesse. “The problem is, it can be tough to know whom to trust and whom not to trust until it is too late. You don’t want an offhand comment that you didn’t mean coming back to haunt you.”
Focus on proper storage. Even if your household includes only adults (as did the Gesses’), it’s critical to store your guns properly. Invest in a gun safe or gun cabinet that you can lock, and think about keeping your guns unloaded with the safety on or using a trigger lock. If it’s provable and/or common knowledge that your firearms are easily accessible and not protected, this information could be used against you.
“If you don’t take precautions when storing your guns, other people might also make assumptions about your willingness to use the firearms inappropriately, whether it’s true or not,” adds Gesse. “And what about guns that you want to keep accessible and loaded for personal protection—as I know many owners do? All I can say is, no one other than adult family members need to know where they are, or that they even exist. And they should not under any circumstances be kept where they might be found by a child.”
Be prepared for false accusations. Yes, it’s unlikely that you will be falsely accused of a crime because you are a gun owner. But lightning does strike sometimes. It happened to the Gesses, and it could happen to you, too. If you own a firearm, you need to have a plan in place and know what to do before the crap hits the fan and you are struggling to stay afloat in the confusing criminal justice system.
“Anyone can be falsely accused of a crime,” reiterates Gesse. “And the reality is that any accusation in which the accuser claims to have been threatened by a gun will be taken very seriously by the police or sheriff’s department. Such an accusation will almost always result in an arrest and prosecution—regardless of how unfounded it might be. Gun owners are therefore at more risk to be prosecuted for a crime they didn’t commit than others simply because they possess a firearm. Preparedness—in other words, knowing what to do if this horrible situation ever happens to you—is therefore especially critical for gun owners.”
Don’t be naive. As the Gesses’ ordeal proves, it’s naive to comfort yourself with statements like, There were no witnesses to the supposed crime, so they can’t prove that I did it, I’m innocent until proven guilty, The burden of proof is on the prosecution’s side, etc. The way things actually work is much different, and you are NOT doing yourself any favors by believing in an idealized version of the criminal justice system.
“Even without what many would consider to be sufficient evidence, you can still be arrested and go to trial,” asserts Gesse. “You will be treated as though you are guilty until you are proven innocent. To prove that innocence, you will probably have to spend large amounts of time and money. And saddest of all, plenty of people will lie—even under oath—to serve their own purposes (as was the case in Steven’s trial). Yes, reality can be ugly, but you need to face it as it is instead of how you want it to be.”
“Please, don’t have an ‘it’ll never happen to me’ attitude,” concludes Gesse. “Steven and I did—actually, we’d never so much as considered the possibility of being falsely accused—and look what happened! The truth is, you never know when or how life will kick in the door and turn your life upside down. But you can do what’s in your power to protect yourself.”