As anybody who is a member of NRA knows, we support the dedicated men and women of law enforcement who put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of us all. We understand that most law enforcement officers take their oaths to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States seriously. We also understand that untold thousands of reassuring interactions occur between citizens and law enforcement officers every day.
What we don't understand are reports like this one arising from an incident in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Tampa Bay Tribune recounts the disturbing story of a man who found himself on the receiving end of some aggressive and heavy-handed police tactics, apparently for nothing more than being under suspicion of owning a firearm.
According to the article, John Filippidis, business owner and family man, was traveling in his 2012 Ford Expedition back to Florida from Woodridge, N.J, where the family had attended a wedding and celebrated Christmas with relatives. With him were his wife and their three teenage children. Filippidis, the article notes, has a Florida concealed carry license. Nevertheless, it also states he had acquainted himself with the rules of interstate travel with firearms, understood the complications that can arise, and had decided to leave his gun at home in Florida.
That would seem to be enough to ensure a family vacation could proceed without unpleasant interactions over legally owned firearms, even in the increasingly hostile territory for gun owners that begins at the Maryland state line and proceeds north up the Atlantic Coast to Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the Filippidis family, these precautions were not enough.
The article continues to recount that on New Year's Eve, after the family passed through the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Maryland, they noticed an unmarked police car flanking them, pulling ahead of them, and finally falling in behind them. This continued for over 10 minutes, although Filippidis said he was not speeding and other traffic was "whizzing past." Eventually, the officer activated the emergency lights on the car and initiated a traffic stop. Filippidis noted he was actually somewhat relieved at that point, as he would at least be able to get the interaction behind them.
Filippidis told the Tribune the officer asked for his license and registration, returned to his cruiser for about 10 minutes, and then, taking a position of cover between the two vehicles, ordered Filippidis out of his car and told him to hook his thumbs behind his back and spread his feet. "You own a gun," the officer said to Filippidis. "Where is it?" Filippidis told him the gun was at home in his safe. The officer told him not to move.
With Filippidis separated from the rest of his family, the officer then focused his interrogation on Filippidis's wife, asking her where the gun was. She first told the officer that she did not know, but then, wanting to be helpful, suggested it could be in the glove box or console. "I'm scared of it," she told the officer. "I don't want anything to do with it."
According to article, the officer again confronted Filippidis, calling him a "liar" and insisting his family said he had the gun. Filippidis continued to protest he didn't have it. The officer summoned back-up and told Filippidis the matter could be resolved if he would just tell him where the gun was.
Three marked police cars arrived on the scene. Filippidis's wife and children were patted down by the officers. The family members were separated and put into the back seats of the different police cars. Their belongings--luggage, presents, laundry bags--were lined up on the shoulder of I-95 in view of passing motorists. For perhaps two hours, the police combed Filippidis's vehicle. No firearm was found. Finally, they issued Filippidis a written "warning" and released him and his family to continue their journey.
Certain aspects of the incident are not clear from the Tribune's account. The article does not specify for what alleged offense the warning was issued, nor on what asserted basis the traffic stop was initiated. More to the point, it does not explain what led to the confrontation over Filippidis's gun, which was stowed in a safe at his Florida home, hundreds of miles from the scene. The article indicates Filippidis received "apologies" from the captain of the officer who initiated the stop, as well as a captain in the department's internal affairs bureau. It also indicates that the agency, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police (MTAP), is withholding comment pending its own investigation of the matter.
Florida's concealed carry law states: "The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services shall maintain an automated listing of licenseholders and pertinent information, and such information shall be available online, upon request, at all times to all law enforcement agencies through the Florida Crime Information Center." Maryland also has very strict laws governing the carrying or transportation of firearms, rarely issues concealed carry licenses under its discretionary "need-based" licensing regime, and does not recognize any out-of-state carry licenses. It has also aggressively pursued gun control recently, resulting in a sweeping law that includes gun bans, licensing, and registration. This, in turn, has sparked multiple lawsuits, some of which have already been settled (see ILA's January 2014 Legal Update for more information).
How these factors may have interacted in this incident is unclear, but at the very least, the Tribune's report raises serious questions about how records indicating a person is a gun owner might lead to unwarranted suspicion and discrimination, even in the absence of wrongdoing.
As for John Filippidis, he remains shaken, humiliated, and unsure about whether he even wants to keep his concealed carry license. "I've never been in any kind of trouble," he told the Tribune. "[The officer] wants to put me in jail. For no reason. He wants to take my wife and children away and put me in jail. In America, how does such a thing happen?"
We're wondering that, too, and we will certainly be interested in any explanation that might arise from MTAP's investigation into the matter.
In the meantime, the Tribune's article appears to be a cautionary tale as to why gun owners should be highly suspect of "universal background checks" and other initiatives that promise to create records of their ownership or involvement with firearms, however innocent or legal. As ideological and political attacks on Second Amendment rights continue, even great caution and compliance with the law will not necessarily spare gun owners grief for exercising their rights.