On Thursday, Haddon Township resident Gregory Gawrysiak was arrested for possession of illegal firearms that police say he purchased with a fake I.D. in Pennsylvania.
The 46-year-old man relinquished his right to gun ownership after a 2010 incident in which he threatened to kill law enforcement officers, according to a statement from the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
Investigators are taking a closer look at Gawrysiak's other alleged activities because they say he's a believer in the Sovereign Citizen Movement—a philosophy the FBI describes as inspiring everything from nuisance crimes to banking scams to domestic terrorism.
What exactly is the Sovereign Citizen Movement? And does Gawrysiak's alleged connection place its politics in our backyard?
'A decades-old conspiracy theory'
According to the Southern Law and Poverty Center (SLPC), the roots of the Sovereign Citizen Movement are based in "decades-old conspiracy theory"—namely, that the federal government was at some point replaced by a shadow group that operates under admiralty law.
Sovereigns blame different historical events for this, SLPC says, including the U.S. Civil War and the discontinuation of the gold standard in 1933.
Since then, sovereigns believe "the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans," SLPC says.
This mythology, sometimes referred to as redemption theory, is attributable to Roger Elvick—a convicted forger and extortionist with ties to white supremacy groups. It goes like this:
When a child is born, parents are issued birth certificates and Social Security numbers to establish "a kind of corporate trust in the baby's name—a secret Treasury account—which it funds" by anywhere from $600,000 to $20 million, according to the SLPC:
By setting up this account, every newborn's rights are cleverly split between those held by the flesh-and-blood baby and the ones assigned to his or her corporate shell account.
Sovereigns believe, then, if they carefully and consciously disobey the rigid social contracts of the government and its many systems that they are safe from its authority.
According to a 2011 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, sovereigns may "produce [their own legal] documents that contain peculiar or out-of-place language...speak their own language or...write only in certain colors, such as in red crayon."
They also carry fraudulent drivers’ licenses to indicate their view that law enforcement does not have the authority to stop their vehicle or may write “No Liability Accepted” above their signature on a driver’s license to signify that they do not accept it as a legitimate identification document.
- People who are financially stressed
- People who are angry at government, especially government regulation
- Con artists and people who want “something for nothing”
In all three cases, the appeal of sovereignty, researchers say, is that it appears to offer a solution to these problems.
Self-styled experts hold sovereignty seminars nationwide, and publish materials that ostensibly teach people how to "unsubscribe from the system."
Promising secret truths or offering access to the hidden levers of power is, of course, psychologically appealing to people who are stretched to their emotional and financial limits—and the sovereign citizen movement has those in spades.
One of the ways in which SLPC estimates the number of Americans who may be even "dabbling" sovereigns is through IRS reports of tax protesters. SLPC calculates that as many as 300,000 people may participate in the movement as a means not only of avoiding taxes but also of resisting "everything from speeding tickets to drug charges.
"As sovereign theories go viral throughout the nation's prison systems and among people who are unemployed and desperate in a punishing economy, this number is likely to grow," SLPC concludes.
Sovereignists in New Jersey
As recently as October 2012, a member of the Sovereign Citizen Movement
Police discovered Oscar Ayala, a wanted felon from Arizona, was in possession of a large quantity of drugs at a traffic stop. His tattoos and conversations with the chief of police there "indicate that he is a member of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an anti-government group that does not believe in judges, juries or law enforcement officials," our sister Patch site noted.
In 2009, Fabrizio Matrascia of Bellmawr was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of three counts of receiving stolen property (a trailer full of goods belonging to former Philadelphia Eagle and NJ 3rd District Congressman Jon Runyan, and valued at $12,000).
Matrascia's court appearances were marked by his choice to represent himself and his insistent ranting. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted his repeated exclamation that the court had no jurisdiction over him, "a live, living man."
From a procedural perspective at least, said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, sovereigns are "more irritants than anything.
"They file frivolous lawsuits, they take advantage of the system to harass people," he said. "They all sort of recite sort of the same legalese, which doesn’t have much truth behind it.
"You just try it like any other case, you just really be patient and really pay attention to the law," he said.
Laughlin indicated that, as far as he knows, Gawrysiak is the only such sovereign in Camden County to have been brought up on weapons charges.
The national political climate for gun-related crime could not be more intense than it is at present.
Locally, questions about gun control were on the lips of both children and adults who met with U.S. Representative Rob Andrews on his visit Wednesday. Before that, in December, Collingswood Mayor James Maley joined a coalition of mayors against illegal guns.
In a shocking moment of synchronicity on Thursday, , that had prompted a sit-down between the National Rifle Association and Vice President Joe Biden was itself interrupted by the news of a school shooting in California.
Make no mistake: The tragedy at Sandy Hook is driving these conversations.
But when reports also emerged that Nancy Lanza, the first victim of the violence her son Adam wrought that day, may have been stockpiling weapons because she was preparing for the collapse of society, another concern emerges.
What happens when someone who is financially distressed—or mentally ill, or feels subjugated, or threatens violence—gains access to illegal weapons?
What happens when that person lives next door, or down the street, or around the corner?
Plenty of people hold fast to ideas that seem ignorant, crazy, or at the least, really far-fetched. But they might just have run out of the ability to explain why their lives seem so difficult; why people seem so out of touch.
If there are Gregory Gawrysiaks in Haddon Township, what are we doing to reach out to them?
If they're preparing for the worst, how are we staying ahead of the next invisible provocation?
Who are our neighbors, really—and how much of our help do they need to realize that we are theirs?