Webby award winning marketing consultant and father Brian Aitken’s life was turned upside down in January of 2009 when New Jersey police arrested him on felony gun charges as he was attempting to move his possessions, including lawfully-owned firearms, across the US from Colorado to New Jersey in an effort to live nearer to his son. Aitken was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison, only to later be released after four months behind bars when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie commuted his sentence in response to an overwhelming volume of calls by gun rights activists. Though an appeals court later threw out two of the three charges, a family court ruling still prevents Aitken from being involved in his son Logan’s life. He has not seen his son in almost seven years and has launched a crowd-funding campaign, described in the above-embedded video, to raise funds for a legal challenge in an effort to regain his parental rights. The family court ruling that prevents Aiken from seeing his son sets a dangerous precedent allowing courts to take away citizens’ children on the basis of their gun ownership.
BenSwann.com writer Barry Donegan obtained an exclusive interview with Brian Aitken, transcribed below, in which he opened up about his struggles as a victim of overzealous gun laws.
Barry Donegan: “Explain how it came to pass that you were arrested while attempting to move your possessions cross-country, including legally-acquired firearms, from Colorado to New Jersey.”
Brian Aitken: “My son was born in Colorado in early 2008 but, for reasons I talk about in my memoir, things weren’t working out with the marriage. Within months my former wife moved to New Jersey with my son to be closer to our families. I gave up my job and put the house up for sale shortly thereafter so I could be closer to my son and play an active role in his life. Once I got there, though, my former wife began withholding custody of my son. She was using him as a poker chip as if to say ‘I’ll trade you your son, if you give me X, Y, and Z.’ On the day I was arrested, I was moving from my parents house into an apartment in Hoboken with my legally owned guns locked and unloaded in the trunk of my car. She had canceled my visitation for the fourth week in a row when I told my mom I ‘didn’t see the point in being here’ if I couldn’t see my son. Eventually, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes after I left my parents home, my mother called 9-1-1, immediately thought better of it, and hung up the phone. By then it was too late, the call had already been placed, and the police responded to an abandoned 9-1-1 call. From that point forward I was the subject of a gun-hunt. I was never the suspect of any sort of crime and, as the trial testimony shows, not even the police officers thought I was a threat to myself or anyone else. They just wanted my guns and were willing to do just about anything to get them.”
Barry Donegan: “What steps did you take in an effort to learn how to transport the guns legally given the different state laws on guns?”
Brian Aitken: “I flew with them from Colorado to New Jersey with TSA clearance and called the New Jersey State Police three days before I moved to make sure I understood how to transport firearms. I did exactly what the State Police told me to do.”
Barry Donegan: “What is your background as a gun owner in terms of training and experience with handling firearms? Did you pass a federal background check for your guns? What types of guns were they?”
Brian Aitken: “I was only a gun owner for about a year before I was arrested but my family has a history of expert firearms use. My grandfather was a designated marksman in World War II and when I was ten he promised me he’d teach me how to shoot as soon as I turned thirteen. I remember counting down the days to my thirteenth birthday months in advance. My uncle was also a handgun instructor at the Philadelphia Police Academy and my father and I went to the shooting range on occasion, but I never owned a firearm until I became a father and felt compelled to be able to protect my family. I passed all the appropriate background checks and went through the ATF, FBI and CBI in order to purchase my firearms.”
Barry Donegan: “Is it correct that you were charged with possessing high-capacity magazines despite only having the magazines that came with the guns at the point of purchase? How did it feel when you read that The Trentonian characterized your bullets as ‘cop-killer bullets’ despite the fact that you and your family have always respected police officers?”
Brian Aitken: “That’s correct. The State of New Jersey charged me with possessing ‘high capacity magazines’ which, in reality, were the standard-capacity magazines issued by Smith & Wesson. New Jersey gives very standard things scary names in an effort to vilify gun owners, exactly the same way The Trentonian said I had ‘cop-killer bullets.’ By the time that article came out I had become so used to being treated like scum for owning guns that it didn’t even phase me.”
Barry Donegan: “What penalties did you face upon conviction? How did your firearms conviction impact your custodial rights to visitation with your son?”
Brian Aitken: “I was sentenced to seven years in prison with a minimum mandatory sentence of three years before I’d be eligible for parole. The conviction didn’t really impact my custody of my son, but the charges did. Nine months before I even went to trial a family court judge decided that I should only be allowed to see my son in a room reserved in a courthouse under the direct supervision of a police officer because I could own firearms. I didn’t even own guns at the time, the Mount Laurel Police Department had them as evidence, but because I could technically still own them I was practically banned from seeing my son. All of this for the violentless and victimless ‘crime’ of possessing guns I owned legally.”
Barry Donegan: “What solutions did the judge assigned to your case offer in terms of allowing you visitation with your son? Have you been able to see your son, and, if not, why?”
Brian Aitken: “I am only allowed to see my son for one hour a week inside the Ocean County Family Court, in a room reserved in advance, with a police officer scheduled to supervise the visitation. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly difficult for all of those things to line up at the same time and in six years they never have. If I spend several thousand dollars more they’ll consider changing this, but at the time I didn’t have ten dollars let alone the thousands they were extorting me for.
The way the court turns this from a temporary to a permanent injunction is by ordering someone to pay for transcripts and additional paperwork for additional hearings, that can climb beyond $5,000 pretty quickly. Transcripts alone can easily run over a thousand dollars. All the while, my child support obligations doubled based upon what the judge felt I could earn–he imputed my income at being three times greater than I had actually earned in any year of my entire life–and I quickly found myself unable to pay the ransom they were demanding. They used financial sanctions to drown me in debt and keep me from seeing my son.”
Barry Donegan: “How long did you spend in prison before Chris Christie commuted your sentence? Did you believe while you were there that you might have to serve the full seven-year sentence?”
Brian Aitken: “I spent four months behind bars before Governor Christie commuted my sentence. I had turned down almost a dozen plea deals before trial and had tried to prepare myself mentally to spend at least three years in prison before either getting out on parole or appeal. My entire family prepared for the worst.”
Barry Donegan: “How did it feel when you found out that gun rights activists from across the country rallied to your support? How did you feel when you heard the news that Governor Christie commuted your sentence?”
Brian Aitken: “There aren’t any words to describe what it felt like to find out people from all across the country were out there rallying for my freedom. For so long I had faced the courts alone and then, out of nowhere, all of these amazing people were calling and writing the governor’s office demanding that I be released from prison. So many people called Governor Christie’s office that the lines crashed. I didn’t know any of these people, but I owe them so much. They kept me company with their letters and gave me hope. I was in solitary for protective custody when I found out Governor Christie had commuted my sentence. It was surreal. It didn’t hit me for a few days.”
Barry Donegan: “Considering the fact that Chris Christie only commuted your sentence to time served rather than pardoning you and given the fact that an appeals court cleared you of the charges related to the possession of the guns and alleged high-capacity magazines, but let stand the conviction pertaining to the hollow point bullets, what ongoing hurdles do you face as a result of your convictions? What is the current legal status of your case?”
Brian Aitken: “Well, because it’s legal to own hollow point ammunition in New Jersey but it’s illegal to transport it from one house to another while you’re moving, I’m still a convicted felon. I can’t vote. I can’t pass a background check and I’m almost universally denied all rental applications. I’m working on changing all of that, but it’s a long process especially when you realize I’ve been fighting this for over six years now.”
Barry Donegan: “Tell us about your book, The Blue Tent Sky. How has it been received? Where can readers obtain a copy?”
Brian Aitken: “I realized that my son is out there somewhere and, where ever he is, there are people telling him something about his father. He’s probably been told that I’m either a deadbeat dad or dead when, in reality, I’ve been asking the courts and his mother to let me see him for years. I wrote the book so my son could, one day, know the truth about major events that impacted his relationship with his father for the years to come. It became Amazon’s #1 bestselling eBook for Constitutional Law and Penology and received some pretty high praise from people like Clark Neily at the Institute for Justice, Dick Heller of DC v Heller, and Wayne Olson of the Cato Institute. It’s available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and at some of the great indie bookstores across the country.”
Barry Donegan: “Tell us about your current crowd-funding campaign to help you reunite with your son.”
Brian Aitken: “I’m hosting a thirty-day crowd-funding campaign to help raise funds to reunite me with my son. I’ve already used the proceeds from the sale of the book to retain one of the best family law firms in New Jersey, but I’ve been here before and I know the fight that’s to come. I need to be prepared for the long game and, unfortunately, that involves paying a lawyer a lot of money. The campaign has a bunch of amazing perks including a Springfield 1911 from Omaha Outdoors, a custom Glock 17 from Glockstore.com, and a competition grade AR-15 from Spikes Tactical. Plus, every person who donates $100 or more gets a $1,000 2 Day Defensive Handgun Course from the legendary Front Sight Training Institute in Nevada.
For the record, I’d much rather this money pay for my son to go to college than pay for my lawyers kids to go to college. I’d like to publicly offer to take the balance of my lawyers retainer and put it in a trust account for my son if my ex-wife agrees to lay down arms and work out a reasonable parenting time plan with me. I want to work this out like mature adults who want the best for their child. I don’t think that’s a crazy thing to ask for.”
Barry Donegan: “How does it feel to not be able to see your son as a result of the fallout from this case?”
Brian Aitken: “It feels horrible. He just turned seven years old a couple weeks ago and I’ve never even heard his voice before. I was so excited to be a father and then, one day, the State of New Jersey just took that away from me. My son deserves to have a father. No one in my family is allowed to see him. His own grandmother hasn’t been able to see him in years. It’s broken her heart. My mother can’t even bear to say his name without breaking down in tears. He was just stolen from us, and for what? Because I owned guns? It’s insane. It’s just not right.”
Aitken’s crowd-funding campaign, entitled Logan’s Heroes in honor of his son, is ongoing until March 19, 2015.