INSIDE a grange hall in a rural stretch of South Jersey, hundreds of men and women who've embraced tea-party politics cast skeptical glances and tough questions when their local Republican congressman took the stage.
"Why don't you ever come to our meetings? How do you expect our grandchildren to be able to live in this world?" they asked U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
One man questioned LoBiondo about death camps of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a popular conspiracy theory on the far right, and his suspicions seemed confirmed when the the congressman didn't know what he was talking about.
But after the guest of honor, Brian Aitken, spoke to the Greenwich Tea Party Patriots of South Jersey about his arrest, conviction and prison sentence for having handguns he purchased legally in Colorado, the crowd was smitten and wanted to know two things in particular.
"Did you get your guns back?" two men asked Aitken, who stood on a bare stage with an American flag and a Gadsden flag, which shows a coiled rattlesnake poised to strike.
The other question is something Aitken's been getting quite a bit since Gov. Chris Christie commuted his seven-year prison sentence on Dec. 20.
"Do you have any political aspirations?" asked Matt Pinto, of Hammonton.
"Yeah," Aitken said, "to stay out of politics."
"Oh, come on, we need more people like you to get involved," Pinto replied.
The speaking engagement on a recent Tuesday night in Salem County was Aitken's first public appearance since his story made international headlines last year. He said he chose the Greenwich Tea Party because it focuses on educating people about the Constitution, but he has more speaking engagements lined up in coming months.
During his hourlong presentation at the Elmer Grange Hall, Aitken pointed to all the ways he felt his constitutional rights were violated on Jan. 2, 2009, after his mother called police from her home in Mount Laurel, fearing that he was suicidal over a custody issue with his ex-wife.
At the time, Aitken said, he was traveling back to Hoboken when the police called him and asked him to return to Mount Laurel that afternoon. He agreed, reluctantly.
Once back at his parents' home, Aitken spoke with police for several hours before he allowed them to search his car. In the trunk, police found handguns, locked and unloaded, and he was arrested shortly afterward.
"Somebody should have told me it was an interrogation, not some congenial conversation," Aitken said. "It wasn't an interrogation, but everything I said was used against me."
If it happened again, Aitken said he would have kept his mouth shut.
"I would have kept driving to Hoboken and called my attorney when I got there," he said.
Aitken paid particular thanks to the National Rifle Association for its support during his time in prison and since his release just before Christmas after serving four months in prison. An NRA information booth in the back of the hall was selling "Free Brian Aitken" shirts, asked for donations for his legal-defense fund and had fliers depicting Adolf Hitler and President Obama standing side-by-side in full Nazi regalia.
"We're really big on the 2nd Amendment down here," said Brenda Roames, the Greenwich Tea Party's founder and organizer. "We thought Brian had a unique story and he's a really great guy. He would make a unique candidate someday."
Aitken claimed he had a legal exemption under New Jersey's firearm statutes to have the guns in his car because he was moving from residences. He said former Burlington County Superior Court Judge James Morley refused to let the jury see the exemptions, although they asked for them three times during the trial.
Aitken believes that New Jersey's gun laws, some of the strictest in the country, infringe upon the 2nd Amendment.
Over the past month, Aitken has spent most of his time in New York with his fiancée, Jenna Bostock. Although Christie commuted his sentence to time served, the conviction still stands and Aitken is waiting to hear how the New Jersey appellate court in Trenton plans to proceed with his case.
Aitken believes that getting the case thrown out and his name cleared would help him regain visitation with his 3-year-old son, Logan.
"It's been two years since I've seen him," he said.
Aitken is moving to Georgia to take a job as director of new media with the Foundation for Economic Education, a free-market think tank that espouses "the sanctity of private property and individual liberty."
As a staunch libertarian, Aitken said there are some aspects of the tea-party movement that don't sit well with him, particularly closing the borders. His recent tea-party meeting was his first. He said he loved the Gadsden flag, the famous yellow banner with "DON'T TREAD ON ME" written below the rattlensnake.
"The whole birther thing [questioning Obama's birthplace] puts me off a little bit, but overall their principles and a lot of what they want to accomplish are the right things," he said.
Still, Aitken said he has an inherent aversion to politics, and he clapped sparingly when LoBiondo spoke with the crowd earlier in the evening.
"I would say it's a very distant possibility," he said about running for office. "I don't think I would get very far. I didn't tend to take a lot of crap from people. It seems as if you have to waver on your beliefs to get things done sometimes. I wouldn't do that."
During his trial, Aitken said he never wavered on his innocence and never entertained the thought of accepting the multiple plea bargains he said that had been offered to him. He parted ways with his first attorney, he said, over the issue.
"I like to think that I stuck to my guns," he told the crowd.