A few years ago, I wrote a piece (which is still among my most viewed posts) about how Mark Wahlberg was technically not a felon, and therefore the actual shooting training he has done to support his action movie career, was in a legal gray area.
For those who don't know (hello google searchers), it is illegal in the entire United States (under federal law, as well as state laws in every state) for a felon of any sort to buy, own, receive, possess, operate, or handle a firearm or ammunition.
It is also a felony for any person to transfer, provide, or allow access to any firearm; to any person whom they know, or should reasonably know, is a felon, or otherwise a prohibited person (domestic violence conviction, restraining order, drug addict, fugitive from justice, illegal alien etc.. All are lawfully considered "prohibited persons" who cannot possess firearms).
There are actually a hell of a lot of felons (usually drugs, occasionally white collar crime) in the film industry; including a fair number of stuntmen, and actors in B grade action movies (and even a few big name stars, though usually they manage to avoid felony charges).
Sometimes, they fire guns, on film.
Isn't that illegal?
Well, yes, it is...
But it's Hollywood...
Hollywood gets around the illegality of this under the rather tissue thin veil of "prop" guns used in theatrical performances. Many of those props are in fact legally fully functioning firearms; but since you can't easily tell the difference on film, and because Hollywood can make a big stink (and they donate a lot of money), the FedGov doesn't make an issue out of it.
Note: The ATF actually DOES hassle the prop houses that build and maintain these film weapons... In fact, they've hounded many of the smaller suppliers out of business; and occaisonally even go after the big guys (one of the largest prop suppliers went through massive difficulties a few years ago).
Anyway, that's Hollywood movies, where there is that whole tissue of protection.
Jesse James, the motorcycle and custom car fabricator and reality TV star, is also a very avid firearms collector. In fact, hes even a collector of fully automatic weapons; the most highly regulated weapons in the country.
Jesse himself has had some trouble with the law, spending a few months in jail (or juvenile detention) while he was a teenager, and having caught a few minor assault charges in his teens and twenties; but he has never been convicted of a felony or offense that would prohibit him from owning firearms. He has also had his juvenile record expunged (required to become a licensed and bonded security guard in states that license them, which Jesse was for several years before founding his fabrication company).
It's actually very difficult to own a machine gun in the United States. It requires an extensive federal background check conducted by the FBI and ATF, which can take more than six months; as well as the sign-off of your local chief law enforcement officer (usually your county sheriff), in order to buy or receive one.
I'm actually surprised that, given his history, he hasn't had problems in getting his class III items (industry term for specially regulated guns like machine guns) transferred; but since his only serious offenses were juvenile and have been expunged, legally it's as if they never happened (though people who've had their records expunged often still have problems with transferring firearms).
Jesse also has a concealed carry license in Texas; which again, requires a very stringent background investigation, and a training class.
Anyway, Jesse has been into guns for a long time, has taken a number of firearms training courses, collects highly regulated weapons, and he's well known for shooting and playing with lots of cool guns on his TV shows.
He's not a novice. He should, in theory, know what he's doing
Even if they didn't know from any other source, anyone who has ever bought a gun from a licensed dealer knows that it is illegal for a prohibited person (including felons as I said above) to buy, own, or posses a firearm... it's right on the form you fill out for your federal background check (required for all purchases from a licensed dealer).
Further, Jesse's ex-wife (porn star Janine Lindemuller) is a convicted felon, and as part of their divorce, James needed to deal with guns and his wife (it can be illegal to even have guns in the same house as a felon, if the felon can gain access to the guns).
There are no circumstances under which Jesse could claim that he didn't know it was illegal for a felon to touch a gun; or for someone to give a felon a gun, even temporarily, even just to shoot under your own supervision.
On an episode of his new reality TV show "Jesse James Outlaw Garage" aired a few weeks ago, Jesse had action movie star Danny Trejo over to his ranch in Austin, to go shooting.
During this meetup, Trejo fired numerous firearms (owned by James) on film, including several fully automatic weapons (machine guns), and suppressed weapons (the industry term for what most people know as silencers). James was shown handing Trejo firearms (including automatic weapons) on film.
There's a major problem with that...
Danny Trejo is a multiply convicted felon, who served 11 years in prison for drug possession, robbery, assault, and attempted murder (which he committed at age 17).
Trejo has been friends with James for something like 20 years, having met in the late 80s or early 90s while Trejo was taking occasional security and bouncer jobs in between minor roles in action movies and B movies; and Jesse was working those same jobs before opening his own shop.
Trejo is very open about his history; talking frequently about his problems with drugs, alcohol, and gangs that led him to prison; and the 12 step program of recovery and turning to god, that saved his life in prison, and motivated him to become successful since.
Trejo is, by all reports, a genuinely good guy. He has a large family which he spends a lot of time with (he's 68 years old, and has several grandchildren from his three sons and two daughters). He does a lot of charity work, and is an advocate for rehabilitation; often speaking to church groups, homeless groups, gang outreach programs etc... He has certainly turned his life around, and is not a danger to society.
If there is any formerly violent felon who deserves to have his rights restored, it's Danny Trejo. There is really no reason why he shouldn't be allowed to shoot and own guns.
Unfortunately, it's still a felony for him to do so; and a felony for anyone to give him the guns to do it with.
It is possible under some circumstances for a felon to have their firearms rights restored; by having their records expunged, or by receiving a pardon and going through a rights restoration process with the FBI and ATF (they generally refuse to conduct this process without direct intervention of a congressman, claiming that they are not funded to do so, but they also refuse any offer to pay for the process... but that's a separate issue). TV and movie star Tim Allen went through this process a few years ago, so he could own guns and hunt again (he spent two and a half years in prison in the early 80s, for selling cocaine).
Unfortunately, Trejo has not had his record expunged, nor has be been pardoned, and his rights have not been restored.
Also, I'm certain there was no genuine criminal intent here, which SHOULD be an element of any crime; nor was any injury or any danger to any person or to society created, which should be a pre-requisite for any felony.
Unfortunately, that is not how our government chooses to interpret and enforce the law.
So, Jesse James and Danny Trejo just committed multiple state and federal felonies, which could result in prison sentences of up to 25 years, and fines running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; on film, and broadcast to an entire nation.
... and this time, there isn't that thin tissue of "props" used in a "theatrical performance" to protect them.
Usually, Hollywood gets a pass on this sort of thing; but I think there's a pretty good shot that Jesse James is going to see some legal repercussions here. The ATF LOVES to get press attention, and some folks online are already making noises about "special treatment for celebrities etc...
On the one hand, I don't believe that someone like Trejo should be prevented from owning or shooting firearms...
On the other hand, my belief is irrelevant, and the law is what it is. If I did something like that, and was stupid enough to film it and put it up on say, youtube... I'd be going to jail. Special treatment for the wealthy or famous.. or really any kind of selective enforcement... is the worst kind of perversion of the justice system, effectively creating a special class of citizen.
Hell... maybe James and Trejo can be the test case for reformed felons having their rights restored.