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Big bang theory: Is Vermont flooding New England with illegal guns?

A recent conference on illegal gun trafficking has put Vermont, along with the mayor of the state’s largest city, back in the crosshairs of an ongoing debate in New England.

The debate centres on this basic premise: Do Vermont’s lax gun laws contribute to crimes in other cities by encouraging illegal gun trafficking? According to top law enforcement officials, the answer is no.

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss, a Progressive, attended a recent regional conference hosted by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a Democrat, to talk about ways to stem the flow of illegal guns onto the urban streets of New England. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is also raising the issue nationally.

Kiss has raised some eyebrows among gun enthusiasts in Vermont who believe Boston’s constant finger pointing at Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine for having lax gun laws is a political smokescreen to force a debate on whether these states should enact stronger gun laws like Massachusetts. Boston has gone so far as to put up billboards along Interstate 93 laying the blame for illegal gun crimes squarely on Vermont’s doorstep.

“The fact that I signed onto the gun statement, at minimum, was a vote of solidarity with the mayors of much bigger cities, and to recognize that there is a problem,” said Kiss. “While things might not be terrible here, they are more serious in other places.”

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Kiss said he is not sure that Burlington has a problem with illegal gun trafficking, but said several recent deaths in the city involving guns concern him, and he wants to be sure the city is going all it can to protect its citizens from gun violence.

“Most of the gun violence in Burlington recently has been associated with drugs, but there are also issues around domestic violence and suicide, too. This debate is not about whether guns are legal or illegal, it’s one about gun violence,” said Kiss.

Vermont: A gun tradition
While Vermont is ranked among the safest states in the country, anti-gun groups often give Vermont low ratings because it does not conform to their idea of stricter gun laws, such as requiring permits to carry a concealed weapon in public, and does not require background checks or other measures designed to restrict sales in any form.

For his part, Kiss believes that Vermont lawmakers should discuss whether to enact laws that would require waiting periods to purchase guns, require guns to be sold with child safety locks, as well as require guns to be locked away from children. He also thinks there may need to be a limit, per month, on the number of guns purchased by one person.

He also argues that Vermont lawmakers should discuss whether it should tighten up its laws around the sale of guns, and require background checks and waiting periods for all sales, not just those from licensed dealers, but also among private sales and gun shows. He doesn’t see that as an undo restriction to owning a gun, or deterring law-abiding citizens from buying guns, but it might deter people who buy them to sell for drugs, or to use for crimes.

“Why shouldn’t we enact these things? These are all based on responsible gun ownership and they have a real potential to improve public safety and we ought to at least seriously talk about them. I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s good to have these discussions,” said Kiss.

However, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen believes Kiss is buying into a false argument.

“For all this hoopla, I have to ask what’s it all about? We don’t have a problem here, and there is no empirical data that I can locate that we’re creating a problem in Boston or New York. It’s more political posturing than anything else,” said Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen. “If I had a crime problem and I didn’t want to deal with it myself I would try to blame someone else, too.”

About half of Vermonters own a gun.

Hughes said Kiss should not rely on conjecture from other mayors, but facts.
“For him to continue doing this when the facts do not represent his position is irresponsible and inexcusable,” said Hughes. “He is smearing this great state.”

Illegal gun sales

Federal officials say the most common illegal gun purchase in Vermont is the “straw purchase.” This is when someone buys a gun, knowing they are going to immediately turn over the gun to another person. In most cases, those guns are traded for drugs. The guns are then taken back to the drug dealer’s city of origin and either sold for an additional profit, or used in a crime.

According to one U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official in Vermont, drug dealers who come to Vermont from Massachusetts or New York can often make money on both ends of their trip. In Vermont, they make money by selling the drugs they smuggled into the state, and then can make money back in their hometown by selling guns they may have bought up here cheaply, or traded for drugs.

“We’ve had a number of cases in which people have bought guns in Vermont legally and then taken them down to Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New York city and traded the guns for drugs; that’s very common, the number of cases in which convicted felons want them and do it for money and sometimes for drugs,” said David Kirby, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Burlington.

In one case, David Rowell, a New Hampshire man living in Newport, bought three guns for Daniel Powers of Brownington, a man who was providing him with heroin. One of those guns was later found in Springfield, MA, when Powers was picked up on charges of drug trafficking. Rowell received six months in prison; Powers received a 15-month jail term. Both will also be on probation for two years.

Other federal officials say guns can be bought relatively cheaply in Vermont and sold for a large profit in larger cities.

“A $200 to $300 weapon here is worth five times that in New York City or DC,” said Darren Gil of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Drug dealers use different people and send them to different dealers to not raise suspicions, he added.

“This happens everywhere across the country, it’s not something unique to Vermont,” said Gil of straw purchases. “I’ve seen this everywhere I have worked for the ATF.”

And, Gil added, it doesn’t seem to matter what type of gun laws a state has on the books.

While Vermont guns have shown up in Springfield, MA, Albany, NY, and Providence, RI, they are not as often found in Boston and New York.

In fact, a 2000 ATF report on gun trafficking in Boston shows that Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are not the major sources of illegal guns. Instead, it is Alabama, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida that are the main sources. Nearly half of the illegal guns used in crimes in Boston in 2000 came from Massachusetts.

“We have not heard of Vermont being a source state for us,” said Virginia Lam, deputy press secretary for Bloomberg. Instead, said Lam, the majority of guns coming into New York are from the so-called Iron Pipeline, or the I-95 corridor in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Instead, Lam said Bloomberg’s initiative is aimed largely at trying to get Washington to consider overturning federal laws enacted in the past six years that make it impossible for federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to share “trace data” about guns. This data can help to pinpoint previous owners, and potentially the gun dealers who sold the guns.

The issue is not about imposing New York laws on Vermont, said Lam, or with denying people the right to own guns.

“He [Bloomberg] has no quarrel with the Second Amendment,” said Lam. “He does not wish to restrict anyone from buying legal, licensed handgun or rifle and has never advocated to pass additional federal laws that would be viewed as being gun control.”

This January, Bloomberg hopes to bring as many of the 122 mayors together in Washington, said Lam, to build momentum to call on Congress to make some changes to federal law. And, she stressed, any legislation the coalition is focusing on right now is aimed at allowing ATF and local officials to share more information about the illegal guns used in crimes.

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