Borders and innocent mistakes

Small Canadian Customs post on Vermont/Quebec border. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Small Canadian Customs post on Vermont/Quebec border. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Here’s a story that pushes all kinds of buttons, concerning a hapless couple from the U.S. who mistakenly approached the Canadian border last September and got into big trouble for forgetting there was a handgun in their car.

As reported this week in Canada by Postmedia News, many gun owners are displeased with the handling of what sounds like a simple misunderstanding:

Retired U.S. Army sergeant major Louis DiNatale and his wife were on a romantic getaway from Kentucky to Vermont when they say their GPS led them astray to the border.

When DiNatale failed to declare a loaded handgun in the centre console — he says he simply forgot it was there — he was detained for four days and now faces gun-smuggling charges that could land him in prison for three years.

“It was an honest mistake,” DiNatale, 46, told Postmedia News Wednesday from Louisville, where he works as a paralegal for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“There’s not even a traffic ticket in my background. Why would I come to Canada to bring a small weapon to smuggle in?”

DiNatale’s Ottawa lawyer, Bruce Engel, said border officers could have shown more discretion, but he also understands that they have to make quick decisions.

Engel said his bigger beef is with Crown attorneys and how they have been unwilling to cut his client any slack.

Of course, everyone caught with contraband tends to claim some veil of innocence. But coverage by the Los Angeles Times lends credence to the DiNatale’s account. Yes, they accidentally stumbled into a legal nightmare but the real issue seems to be Canada’s desire to signal a firm position on guns at the border. (A key point: the couple did not plan – or even want – to enter Canada and asked permission to turn around, which was denied.) The tone of initial questioning recounted in the Time’s article shows how owning guns just doesn’t read the same way in each nation.

There certainly is something sometimes called “American gun culture” which seems incomprehensible to, say, average Canadians. A couple we met after moving to Canada once regaled us with a “get this – can you imagine?!?” story. They were scouting houses in the U.S. accompanied by a female Realtor. (It might have been New Orleans before Katrina, if memory serves?) The Canadian couple were thinking of taking a job and moving there. The Realtor mentioned having a handgun, that was right there in the car with them – a normal precaution that (she said) they should consider too.

The whole thing blew their minds, as the old saying goes. The Canadians were shocked by the casualness of it all. When did keeping handgun within easy reach become as sensible as making sure there was a good spare tire in the trunk? What kind of society is comfortable with the blasé assumption “Well, the way things are around here, I NEED my own handgun”?  (They did not take the job or make the move.)

Anyway, going by media accounts, it does sound as if Louis and Cathy DiNatale should have been allowed to turn around, or given some leeway for the predicament they found themselves in.

One reason I can relate is I’ve done something similar myself, only with knives at U.S. airports. I’ve always kept a small penknife on my key chain. It’s great to cut up apples or saw off a hunk of bread when I’m out and about, and it also has tiny scissors that come in handy too. More times than I like to recall I’ve forgotten to leave that at home when I travel. Since 9/11 of course, the TSA has had to confiscate such items. In the early days I was able to step out of line and put the knife in an envelope and mail it home to myself. (Being the type of person who often traveled with stationary and stamps.) Then mailboxes were ripped out of airports and that safety net vanished.

I also used to have a favorite camping knife, until I forgot it was deep in my backpack the next time I flew. On the black day in question, knowing I had nothing forbidden I was utterly unconcerned while security searched each compartment intently. (I assumed the attention was because of the mess of electronics revealed by the x-ray machine.) When they TSA searcher pulled out my beloved knife and held it up with an accusing flourish, my first thought was “Uh-oh. This could be trouble.” Just as quickly – and even more forcefully – a wail went off in my heart: “Noooooo! They are going to keep my precious and throw it away!!!”

And they did too. (What a total waste. I miss it still.) But at least no one argued with my statement that while it was my knife, I had no idea it was still in that backpack. (It was a really nice pocket knife, a Buck, with perhaps a 2.5″ locking blade. I’d found it in the middle of a road back in the early 80s and it had become a treasured possession for over 20 years.) Since then I make a habit of searching my own carry ons ahead of time, to avoid a repeat incident.

So sometimes mistakes happen, or memory is imperfect. How about it Canada? Would it be so hard to show a little sensible mercy? Or do the nice guys have to finish last when it comes to making some larger point?

Meanwhile, for best results, travelers everywhere should be sure they know what they’re transporting and reply very carefully when questioned.

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5 Comments on “Borders and innocent mistakes”

  1. Ken Hall says:

    Having spent very nearly 40 of my 71 years of existence in the North Country much within less than an hours drive to the Canadian border; which one could cross forth and back in the late 50’s early 60’s nearly as effortlessly as crossing from NY to Vermont. Unfortunately when the US declared war on terror subsequent to the 911 attacks on the twin towers it became so much more irritating to traverse the boarder between Canada and the US that I have forgone such travel.

    Per the article the retired NCO and his wife were vectored to the Canadian boarder by a GPS run amok. Perhaps a little less reliance upon high tech and an occasional glace at low tech “map” might have given them a heads up that they were on course to intersect a border crossing. One might also surmise that when they encountered the signs pointing out that the border crossing was such and such a distance ahead they might have considered turning about prior to entering the no return zone at the crossing.

    Regardless of how they arrived at the border what fear was it that possessed them, whilst touring Vermont, to think they needed to have a loaded hand gun in the console compartment between their seats? The excuse that they simply failed to recall it was there does not pass the common sense test; because, if they felt they threatened I dare surmise they would have recalled it’s presence in a heartbeat.

    The insistence of the “Crown” attorneys in pressing forward with charges is likely an attempt to draw attention to the “gun culture” in the US, by our largest trading partner and neighbor with our and their longest contiguous boarder, possibly at the insistence of upper management.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Everyone knows how Army Sergeants are very forgiving of forgetfulness in their subordinates so it is entirely reasonable that the sergeant would have forgotten a handgun – a loaded handgun – in the center console, exactly where army protocol would have deemed to be proper storage when traveling on the interstate highway system; nevermind traveling to Canada.

    Call me a knuckleheadedliberal but if it were me and I were driving from Kentucky to Vermont I would assume that some jurisdictions in between might prohibit my loaded handgun in the console.

    The good news it that Canada may trade him back for passage of the Keystone pipeline.

  3. Michael Greer says:

    Or maybe they could keep him AND the pipeline…….

  4. Hugh Hill says:

    What nonsense. If preventing gun violence was the real reason Mr. Dinatele is being charged, then the Canadian justice system is failing. This is a political statement and nothing more. Isn’t it obvious that Mr, and Mrs, Dinatele are not criminals, terrorists or gangsters? If some feel it’s okay to use any justice system to punish those who think differently about gun ownership, then they are a greater threat to democracy than the Dinatele couple. A simple confiscation of the gun and perhaps a small fine or a denial of future travel to Canada and would have been more proportionally correct. If the finger waging self righteous opponents of gun ownership think incidents like this will result in the end of the gun culture in our country, then their political sensibilities are as dysfunctional as their sense of justice.

  5. “Anyway, going by media accounts, it does sound as if Louis and Cathy DiNatale should have been allowed to turn around, or given some leeway for the predicament they found themselves in.”

    In fairness, if you’re Canadian customs and you suspect they’re up to no good, why let them turn around and perhaps keep attempting the cross the border until they succeed?

    Canadians tend to be fairly sensible so I assume they’ll just get a warning or a fine.

    But it is instructive to Americans. No matter how sane you think our gun culture is, most other countries don’t. And when you go their country, it’s their interpretation that prevails, not ours, like it or not. So be aware.

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