WHEN federal authorities raided the headquarters of the Gibson GuitarCorporation in late August, seizing wood they said was illegally exported from India, conservative critics denounced the episode as an example of regulatory overreach. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and now Republican presidential hopeful, accused the Obama administration of having a “vendetta” against small businesses; the current speaker, John A. Boehner, invited Gibson’s owner, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, to sit in the speaker’s box during President Obama’s jobs speech last month.

The law that investigators enforced in the August raid is indeed flawed — but not for the reasons critics cite. Large companies like Gibson, if they source their wood carefully, should be O.K. The people who are truly in jeopardy are some of the finest artisanal guitar makers in the United States and Canada. Unlike Gibson, these independent artisans — also called luthiers — have been charged with no crime, but their livelihoods and life savings are at risk nonetheless.

The root of guitar makers’ trouble is the Lacey Act, a law originally enacted in 1900 to prohibit the interstate sale of poached game. In 2008, the act was amended to combat illegal logging around the world. Protections for endangered plants were extended to cover trees logged in violation of foreign law; and importers of wood were required to declare the species and country of harvest for all commercially traded timber, sawed lumber and finished wood products.

Acting on suspicions raised by inaccurate Lacey declarations, armed agents raided Gibson’s factory in Nashville in November 2009 and again in August to determine whether Gibson had accepted ebony imports in violation of laws in Madagascar and India. Gibson has denied any wrongdoing.

The Lacey Act amendments were well intended — few people wish to encourage illegal logging overseas — but the act was aimed at bulk freight and industrial inventory, not the practices of luthiers, who hand-select small quantities of wood and season it for decades, often passing it from one generation to the next.

When importers make declarations under the Lacey Act, they are also claiming that they have complied with other laws, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fau.... This international treaty, adopted in 1973, outlawed global trade in elephant ivory in 1975 and Brazilian rosewood in 1992. But well-established luthiers — particularly the 100 or so who have been handcrafting and restoring stringed instruments for over 40 years — have stockpiles of ivory and wood that were acquired before the bans were put in place.

While manufacturers have increasingly turned to sustainable alternatives to guitar makers’ traditional tonewoods, this option is largely unavailable to artisans who build a small number of instruments each year. Their inability to document the source and age of their materials exposes them to bankrupting fines and confiscations.

As a result, North American luthiers now sit on valuable supplies of Brazilian rosewood they are afraid to use, since guitars made with it cannot legally cross American borders — a liability for traveling musicians and international collectors. For self-employed artisans who often have no health insurance or 401(k) plans, these stashes of rare wood are the only retirement savings they have.

House members have now put forward a proposal — the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act, or the Relief Act — to limit the declaration requirements under the Lacey amendment to solid wood and commercially imported goods, and to lift declaration requirements for wood and wood products imported or manufactured before May 2008.

While the bill may help guitar stores and musicians, it fails to address the problem facing artisanal builders.

Easing the declaration requirements doesn’t affect the underlying legality of the wildlife materials in a guitar. The international sale of Brazilian rosewood guitars or vintage instruments with ivory nuts and saddles would still be illegal (under the convention) and guitars with decorative inlay could still be detained by customs agents looking for certain species of abalone shell (restricted under the Endangered Species Act).

What artisanal makers urgently need is a way to certify the legality of instruments built with materials they acquired before the trade convention and endangered species laws. Any workable solution needs to acknowledge that an artisanal instrument is not a mass-produced object: it has a unique history and character. For example, it should be enough for luthiers to provide a sworn affidavit to show that their Brazilian rosewood was obtained before 1992. Judgments must be made on a case-by-case basis. That is why many luthiers favor the issuing of passport-like documents, with photographs and serial numbers, for vintage and handmade guitars.

The Gibson case has attracted attention far beyond the noisy agitations of the right — not because the actions of the federal government were wrong, but because the future of North American guitar making will be in peril if problematic aspects of environmental law are not resolved.

Those of us who care about the craft that made the American guitar one of the most desirable instruments in the world are watching the Obama administration closely. And we have reason to be hopeful. After all, this is the president who, with his wife, shortly after taking office, gave Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France’s first lady, a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar as a gift of friendship.

Kathryn Marie Dudley is a professor of anthropology and American studies at Yale.