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The Guitar Police

6:01 PM, Sep 1, 2011 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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There are few inventions that America has bequeathed to the world that have changed it more than the electric guitar. Rock music has played a significant role in cultural revolutions against oppressive governments, from the Czech Republic under communism to the burgeoning heavy metal scene in Tehran today. When governments start going after electric guitars, it’s never a good sign.

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So if you were looking for a metaphor to suggest that the Obama administration hates freedom, it would be hard to top the Department of Justice’s raid on Gibson’s guitar plants in Nashville and Memphis last week. The company had to cease manufacturing while the government seized much of the wood the company uses to make its instruments. 

Perhaps no electric guitar is more iconic than the Gibson Les Paul. Designed by musician and inventor Les Paul, Gibson’s guitar, along with the Fender Stratocaster, popularized the solid-body electric guitar. Since then it’s been made famous by everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Guns N’ Roses. Gibson also makes other legendary guitars, such as the 335 hollow body played by B. B. King, and the acoustic-electric played by John Lennon. 

The making of electric guitars frequently involves the use of various exotic hardwoods. This raises some environmental concerns. In 2009, the DOJ, armed with automatic weapons, raided Gibson and seized significant quantities of the company’s wood. Nearly two years later, no charges have yet been filed related to the initial raid. 

However, environmental concerns are only a tangential matter for the guitar police. Gibson is being investigated for violations of the Lacey Act, which was originally authored over a century ago to prevent trading of illegal animals and plants that have been illegally sold. Whether or not they’ve been “illegally” sold is determined by the laws of the country of origin for the plants and animals, and the Lacey Act is applicable only when a foreign law has been violated. 

For its part, Gibson insists that the confiscated wood used by the company comes “from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier and is FSC Controlled, meaning that the wood complies with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is an industry-recognized and independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.”

Further, the company observes that the Lacey Act “reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country.” Ignorance of the law may be no defense, but ignorance of the laws governing the harvesting of rosewood in a remote province of Eastern India (which may require that finishing be done by Indian rather than American workers) hardly seems like an excuse for a federal raid. 

Gibson, like the proud American company it is, refuses to back down in the face of federal overreach. 

The press release the company issued following the raid is both compelling and absolutely blistering. One week after the Obama administration announced it was launching a case-by-case review of 300,000 cases in already backlogged immigration courts, Gibson headlined their press release: “Gov’t says wood is illegal if U.S. workers produce it.” Ouch.

And when Gibson’s case gets more publicity, we trust the company will have more than enough defenders to force the Obama administration to back down. 

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