BOSTON — Massachusetts gun laws are widely considered some of the toughest in the country. But with a rash of shooting deaths in Boston this year, some law enforcement officials say it’s obvious that there are ways around the rules. And when Massachusetts criminals want to get their hands on a gun, they frequently head north.
In 2012, more than half of the guns that law enforcement seized in Massachusetts and managed to trace to their origins came from other states, according to federal statistics. The biggest suppliers by far were New Hampshire and Maine, as is the case most years.
For Dale Armstrong, a federal agent who’s chased gun-smugglers most of his professional life, New England gun-runners are like barnacles.
“You know, one barnacle on the bottom of your boat’s not a problem,” Armstrong said. “But the collective of a thousand barnacles on the bottom of your boat are a real big problem. They’re hard work to scrape off, nobody wants to help you do it.”
In early 2010, Armstrong and fellow agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) found a couple of tough barnacles in an ordinary parking lot just off I-95 in the small town of Wells, Maine.
The agents had been tracking a pattern of lawful handgun buys from licensed dealers in Maine. They believed the buyer was placing ads online and in classified brochures to quickly resell those guns to out-of-staters.
“Now not everybody doing that warrants attention,” Armstrong said. “We look for how many guns are being bought, the type of guns. Are they the guns that frequently you see getting recovered in high-crime areas? The cheap little crime guns — the Jimenez, the Ravens, the Lorcins.”
A man named Randy Goodwin was selling just those types of guns — dozens and dozens, making him a relatively big player in the region’s underground firearms trade, which is dominated by much smaller transactions.
Reached by telephone, Goodwin declined comment for this story.
It’s a felony to sell guns to out-of-state buyers without a federal license, and Goodwin did not have one. Undercover ATF agents from Massachusetts, dressed like members of a motorcycle gang, arranged several buys with him.
According to affidavits, Goodwin never asked for ID, and went so far as to offer advice on filing serial numbers off the weapons. The third time, the ATF arrested him, and turned him into an informant.
“He told us that he had sold this person at least 150 guns,” Armstrong said. “And he called this guy so they set up a meet … and told him, ‘Come on up,’ and it was this guy out of Massachusetts who was a multi-convicted felon and a known gun-trafficker in Lynn, Mass.”
That felon was named Joseph Burns, who also declined comment.
But let’s stop here a moment to ask, why would a felon from Lynn bother to drive 70 miles across two state lines to do a gun deal in Maine?
“It’s an open-air bazaar, in some sense, for firearms,” said Capt. Mark O’Toole, who leads the Lynn Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Unit.
Simply put, guns are easier to get in Maine and New Hampshire, O’Toole says, and once they cross the border into Massachusetts, their price can double or more. Sometimes, he adds, they can be bartered for another commodity.
“We had a group,” O’Toole said, “they were gang members from Lynn, hardcore gang members, stocking up with a wide variety of narcotics, renting motel rooms in central Maine, getting the word out there they were looking to trade for firearms.”
The flow of guns from northern New England to Massachusetts is propelled by key differences among state gun laws. It’s all about private handgun sales, in particular. In Massachusetts every private handgun sale must be recorded and reported to the state within seven days. And the buyer must have a license to carry from local police, which in turn requires a background check. The Massachusetts rules are tight.
Up north, not so much. Buyers at federally licensed gun shops in Maine and New Hampshire are subjected to a federal background check for prior felonies, or a history of severe mental illness. But when it comes to private gun sales — at a gun show, or even a commuter parking lot — no documentation is required — no background check, no record of the transaction.
Darcie McElwee, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maine, says that in her state a private seller doesn’t even have to ask the buyer for a driver’s license.
“Under our law you don’t have to, you just encourage people to do it, because it’s a safe way to transact a firearm,” McElwee said. “Maine has a prevalence of guns; we have a large population of people who use guns for completely lawful purposes. But as a result we have greater access to guns in our state.”
Here’s the rub: It’s always illegal for a prohibited person, such as a felon, to buy a gun. But the seller is barred from the deal only if he or she has reasonable cause to believe the buyer is prohibited. In states such as Maine, with no license, paperwork or ID required, it’s pretty easy for private sellers to simply look the other way.
ATF statistics show that Massachusetts is one of only three states where, in 2012, the majority of seized guns traced to their origins came from out of state. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, says those three states have one thing in common: strong local police authority over permits to purchase guns. He says it’s inevitable that guns will flow to those states from states with looser rules, source states like Maine. But he says Massachusetts’ stricter regime does create an important barrier.
“Even if you’re importing guns from states with weaker laws, there’s a cost associated with that,” Webster said. “The street price will be higher, and you’ll end up with less gun violence.”
Gun control advocates say ending undocumented private sales — and instituting a national background check for all gun sales — would stem gun smuggling from one state to another. Some gun rights groups, though, including the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, say better enforcement is the key. And there is research supporting both points of view.
Law enforcement officials in a few states are piloting new ways to share information about gun trafficking across municipal and state jurisdictions. But absent federal action, there’s not much more an individual state like Massachusetts can do about the interstate trade.
And it looks like criminals will continue to take advantage of the situation, smuggling guns from northern New England into Massachusetts.
Why It’s More Difficult To Get Information About So-Called Crime Guns
It’s more difficult than it used to be for reporters, academics, advocacy groups — even lawmakers and law enforcement — to get information about so-called crime guns that are traced back to their original owners. New restrictions on the information came into play in 2003 and 2004, when then-U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, of Virginia, sponsored a series of legislative initiatives which, as a body, are known as the Tiahrt amendment.
Congress has adjusted the measures over the years, in most cases easing some, but by no means all, of Tiahrt’s restrictions on information collection and sharing by the ATF.
Here’s a list of Tiahrt’s restrictions that remain in place today:
— Limits the ability of the ATF to grant freedom of information requests on specific gun traces, and to share specific trace data or reports of multiple handgun sales with the public or local governments.
— Requires, within 24 hours, the destruction of FBI background check records conducted on prospective gun buyers who are approved to make the purchase.
— Bars the ATF from requiring gun dealers to run inventory checks to detect loss or theft.
— Bars state and municipal governments from using trace data in civil suits against gun dealers or manufacturers, administrative procedures or in license-revocation hearings.
— Initially limited the use of federal funds to publish trace data. For several years the ATF stopped publication of reports that analyzed trends in the illicit gun trade. More recently, the law was adjusted to specifically permit the ATF to publish some aggregate gun trafficking data, and it has. The recent changes also eased restrictions on data-sharing across jurisdictions by law enforcement agencies.
Tiahrt, now a consultant to the aerospace industry, says he got going on the issue when gun-control advocates began to release trace data information to highlight licensed firearms dealers they considered “bad apples” because a disproportionate number of seized guns were traced back to their establishments. Some cities also used such information in class-action lawsuits against the industry.
Tiahrt and the National Rifle Association argue that it’s the ATF’s job to identify potential criminal activity and investigate. Absent law enforcement action, he says, it’s misleading to suggest that gun trace frequency means a particular dealer or manufacturer is criminal.
“So it started out as a privacy issue,” Tiahrt said in an interview. “What I objected to was the release of personal information. And what was requested by these groups, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his surrogate organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. … They were seeking personal firearms information and they wanted all information released to the public. And to me it was a non-starter.”
James Sullivan, a Boston-based adviser to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, says the Tiahrt amendments have hampered law enforcement investigations and public policy decisions.
“[The intent is] not to go on a witch hunt against dealers,” he said. “When [the ATF] can’t talk to you about the three worst gun dealers in New Hampshire and that crime guns show up in Boston [from those dealers] and … a mayor can’t get that information as a policymaker, it’s hard to do your job.”
Some researchers have found their work limited too, according to Glen Pierce, a gun policy expert at Northeastern University. Pierce says that before Tiahrt, he could access ATF data, down to the dealer level, to be used to understand just how the gun trade works. Now, he says, the big data sets are hard to get.
“You have to get the approval of police agencies or possible entire states to do research with their trace data,” Pierce said. “So if you want to do national studies and you want to look at effects of laws in one state across other states, it becomes very hard to do this in a comprehensive manner because you need to get approval from all these jurisdictions, which is cost-prohibitive. So it effectively prevents that type of research from being conducted.”
President Obama has called for repeal of the Tiahrt amendments, but Congress has not acted.