Monday, February 12, 2007

Cowboy Ron vs. the Goon Squad

Yesterday I received an email from “Cowboy Ron” Turner describing an outrageous incident that occurred recently in his Old West antique store, the Cowboy Cabin, in Whitefish, Montana. What follows is a brief summary of the incident drawn from newspaper accounts and a phone conversation I had last night with Ron’s son-in-law Clint Walker.

On January 31, the Department of Justice’s Gambling Investigation Division (GID) raided Ron’s store. Two agents (later identified by the Whitefish Police Department as agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [BATF]) confiscated items they said were unlicensed gambling devices.

Ron explained to the agents that the items—two roulette wheels, two punchboards, and a dice cage—were antiques intended for home décor and personal collections. In fact, even if someone wanted to use them as gambling devices, they were too old and fragile for that purpose—also too expensive. The most prized item, for instance, a roulette wheel/table over 100 years old that was used on the set of the television series Gunsmoke, is valued at over $18,000. The total value of the collection is over $77,000.

Ron's explanations fell on deaf ears. The agents began confiscating the antiques. When Ron asked what was going to happen to the antiques, he was told they would be destroyed. Later, however, GID District Supervisor Larry Renman said, “They are historical and I would hate to see them destroyed. They’ll either end up in a museum or they’ll be retained for training purposes.”

Or maybe they’ll end up somewhere else. During the raid, one agent picked up the dice cage and said, “This is going to look great on my desk.”

In addition to the financial loss, Ron is also facing state misdemeanor charges for possession of unlicensed gambling devices and felony charges for transporting the items over state lines. The felony charge is punishable by ten years in federal prison and a $50,000 fine per item.

As Ron’s son-in-law Clint pointed out in our conversation last night, this is a strange way for Montana, a state with innumerable casinos on Indian reservations, to enforce its gambling laws. He notes that the large chain stores, such as Sportsman’s Warehouse and Wal-Mart, sell blackjack tables and other technically illegal gambling devices in large volume--and these devices are brand-new. Why, then, go after one little antique store?

In the days following the raid, the local news media in northwest Montana began covering the story (see links below), which angered the agents who were involved. They returned to the Cowboy Cabin and warned Ron that they would “turn up the heat” if he did not stop talking to the media. However, as evidenced by the email he sent me and others yesterday, Cowboy Ron has not stopped, and is in fact taking this matter beyond the borders of Montana to the rest of the nation.

I believe he is correct in doing so. For one thing, the federal charges and the involvement of the BATF, an agency with a long history of corruption, automatically make this a matter of national interest. Also, this episode is part of a nationwide trend. In every state these days, we encounter an increasing arrogance and abuse of power on the part of police, an overzealousness on the part of bureaucracies that defies common sense, as well as the misapplication of laws in ways that they were never intended when they were written and the criminalization of things that heretofore have been considered quite innocent. Here in Texas last year, for instance, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission was “preventing” drunk driving by slapping public intoxication charges on people sitting in bars who had designated drivers or people in hotel bars who were within a few steps of their rooms. Now, we learn that in Montana valuable pieces of 19th century Americana are considered contraband. The absurdity needs to stop.

State Agents Seize Old West Gambling Items from Antiques Store

Antique Gambling Devices Seized

Montana Dream Suddenly a Nightmare for Owners of Cowboy Cabin