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Gunning for vindication

If there was a contest held to see who in Kitsap County could quote the most state laws off the cuff, South Kitsap resident Marcus Carter would be the undisputed champion.

Carter has gotten a thorough drenching in state codes, legal precedents and constitutional interpretations in the last four years. He’s had to. Ever since Carter was charged with illegal possession of a machine gun in 1999, he’s been embroiled in an endless series of motions, countermotions, lawsuits and appeals with Kitsap County.

On Sept. 9, the case will hit the state Supreme Court.

Depending on who you ask, Carter is either a respected champion of gun safety or a gun fanatic with a penchant for outlawed weapons. Or both.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge speaks highly of Carter’s gun education classes while maintaining Carter was fairly caught with a highly dangerous and highly illegal automatic weapon.

“We’re talking about, at bottom, under what circumstances people can possess machine guns, which are very dangerous instrumentations,” Hauge said. “There’s no dispute that (Carter’s weapon was) a machine gun.”

Actually, said Carter, there’s plenty to dispute that claim. He has a letter from a certified armorer that states the gun seized by the county on May 15, 1999, is not a machine gun. The gun, Carter explained, was actually a prototype of a competition rifle he was developing at the time.

Nevertheless, the precise definition of Carter’s seized weapon is not the subject of the last four years of legal action. At issue is whether the county even had the right to call it a machine gun in the first place.

Some of the details surrounding the evening of May 15 are subject to debate.

What both Carter and the county agree on goes are:

• Carter, a near-full-time volunteer at Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club near Seabeck, was teaching a gun instructor certification class to a small group of people. Two of the men in the class were employed as investigators for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.

• At one point in the class, each attendee had to demonstrate how to clear a weapon, which included demonstrating the chamber was empty. Bruce Jackson, who at that point was chief criminal investigator for Pierce County, picked up one of the available weapons — an AR-15 competition rifle owned by Carter — and demonstrated how to clear it.

• However, Jackson didn’t put it back down. According to the report Jackson filed, he found several parts that didn’t match the factory-issue AR-15s.

• When he opened up the gun to look inside, he found what he identified as parts from an M-16 military assault rifle — an automatic weapon banned from civilian ownership under state law.

That’s largely where the two stories split. Carter said the investigator was very rude and insisted Carter relinquish the weapon to him so he could go back to Pierce County and have it tested. The investigator reported Carter got very anxious and tried to destroy or remove the illegal parts inside the weapon.

Eventually, the police were called in and Carter’s weapon was seized.

Ironically enough, when the case finally went to court, it didn’t last long enough for the official reports of the gun’s capacities to be entered as evidence. The case was thrown out in the early stages on grounds of illegal search.

Essentially, the court said the investigators had no right to go poking around inside Carter’s weapon without a warrant or permission from Carter.

“That’s what I wrote in my report was that he started a clandestine investigation without my knowledge,” Carter said. “When he pushed that pin and opened that gun, he went beyond the ‘open-view’ doctrine.”

“It was more a matter of being rude than anything else,” he added.

When the county appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals in Tacoma, the three-judge panel there agreed with Carter and upheld the Superior Court decision. The county’s motion for reconsideration failed as well. Now the matter is with the Supreme Court and the county is optimistic about the potential outcome of this latest appeal.

“The Supreme Court is very selective about which cases they take,” Hauge said. “We thought there were pretty significant issues, and they agreed.”

Carter isn’t fazed, though. After four years of being dragged through the court system, Carter said he now knows more about gun law than most attorneys. Of course, Carter said, he never had that much confidence in attorneys in the first place — that’s why he continues to represent himself, just as he has from the beginning.

“It’ll be interesting,” he said of his foray into the Supreme Court. “I’m learning more than I’ve ever thought I’d want to know.”

At this point, Carter said he only wants two things. The first is for the whole legal mess to be resolved so he can go back to being a regular guy again — being a self-taught lawyer is “draining,” he said. The second is to get his gun back.

Carter hasn’t been crippled by the loss of his weapon. He still competes with another AR-15 he owns and hasn’t stopped tinkering. A former full-time gunsmith, Carter is proud of the extras on his competition gear — everything from broader grips to self-deploying tripods.

In fact, Carter is still trying to complete the experiment he said the county interrupted in 1999. The mechanism the investigator found in the gun, Carter explained, was actually the raw beginning of a device that would allow him to shave seconds off his timed competition events.

Although no guns currently carry this feature, Carter wants to create a part that would allow a rifle to fire both on the trigger pull and on the trigger release — a major advantage when the clock is running.

Carter said this part is what caused all the trouble — the improvement didn’t work and instead of improving speed while maintaining control, just allowed the gun to spit bullets out all over the place.

Indeed, when the county tried out the gun, they said it fired 11 rounds per second. A gun need fire only five rounds per second to be considered a machine gun.

Carter said it’s on principle that he wants his gun back. The county took it illegally, he said, and it should be returned.

Hauge disagrees.

The county has a firm policy of seeking forfeiture of weapons even if the original case is lost or dismissed. Hauge said the prosecutor’s office will even go after guns that were in the vicinity of a crime, even if they were never actually used.

Although Hauge said the county will abandon the case is it loses at the Supreme Court level, he also said he has been talking to the state Attorney General about possibly seeking federal weapons charges against Carter.

“The government takes gun prosecution very seriously,” Hauge said. “He will never get that gun back, no matter what.”

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