Monday, August 29, 2011

Glad Les Paul isn't around to see any of this

So, what do you do when your gun-running operation down to Mexico has proved to be a smashing success (meddlesome inquiries from a Congressional committee, aside)? You start harassing an iconic guitar manufacturer here, stateside, that's what.

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.

It isn't the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian's ES-150. In 2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case with the delightful name "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms."

The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards. And if Gibson did knowingly import illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, that wouldn't be a negligible offense. Peter Lowry, ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden, calls the Madagascar wood trade the "equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds." But with the new raid, the government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India met every regulatory jot and tittle.

It doesn't appear that the wood from India that Gibson is using is even illegal, just wood that is subject to a vague law that even India isn't all that concerned with enforcing.

We're pressed for time but it isn't just Gibson that needs to be worried but also musicians that travel abroad with Gibson-manufactured guitars that may be subject to fines and prosecution if they cannot produce the proper paperwork verifying the pedigree of the wood in their guitar(s).

Again, selective enforcement of the law is no way to run a Republic.

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