Feature

Gibson guitars: A new form of contraband

Federal agents armed with submachine guns recently raided two Gibson Guitar factories, seizing $1 million in guitars and Indian ebony and rosewood.

“When governments start going after electric guitars, it’s never a good sign,” said The Weekly Standard in an editorial. Federal agents armed with submachine guns recently raided two Gibson Guitar factories in Tennessee, seizing $1 million in guitars and Indian ebony and rosewood. Gibson, whose iconic guitars have been played by such legends as B.B. King, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, uses exotic hardwoods in fret boards and other parts because they add unique tonal nuances. But the feds say Gibson’s use of those woods may violate the Lacey Act, a century-old law that bars the importation of materials made from endangered animals, plants, and woods—like ebony.

With its heavy-handed Gibson raid, the Obama administration may have just lost the guitarist vote, said John Hudson in TheAtlantic.com. Among guitar aficionados, the raid has let loose a fire hose of anti-government venom, and their online message boards now sound like “veritable Tea Party town halls,” with denunciations of the “police state.” That’s because the government’s treatment of Gibson, its 700 employees, and its customers is “disgraceful, counterproductive, and mean-spirited,” said Bob Barr in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution online. Gibson has proof that the wood was obtained legally, but the government says the Lacey Act requires Americans to abide by all foreign laws, too. Under India’s “byzantine legal code,” ebony and rosewood must be “finished” by Indian workers before being sent abroad. So on that basis, Gibson’s thriving small business has essentially been shut down. All Americans “who believe in freedom” should raise a Les Paul Gibson guitar over their heads and tell the bureaucrats they’ll have to pry them “from their cold, dead hands.”

The Lacey Act is actually a good law, said Hank Campbell in Science20.com, preventing unscrupulous companies from importing endangered animals, hides, plants, and woods. But this time, the government went way overboard; Gibson has been importing these hardwoods for decades, and only now is the government saying it’s illegal. Because of this aggressive new interpretation, said Erik Felten in The Wall Street Journal, any guitarist who travels abroad with a vintage instrument made of rare woods better be prepared to offer documentation that the wood was legally imported—or “lose it to a zealous customs agent.” How nuts is that? Artists rightly want the best sound from their instruments, and sometimes, “art makes claims significant enough to compete with environmentalists’ agendas.”

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