WCAX Investigates: Guns and drugs - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

WCAX Investigates: Guns and drugs

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Most Vermonters visiting Boston are met by its iconic skyscrapers and historic charm. But there's another side to the city; 51 people were murdered in Boston last year, roughly 70 percent killed by guns. The Dorchester neighborhood was the most violent, with 17 murders.

"These mayors know the terrible toll that guns take in their communities," said Mayor Tom Menino, D-Boston.

Menino says Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are contributing to the problem. He's rallying mayors across the country to join a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Massachusetts already has some of the nation's toughest gun laws, yet violent crime remains high.

"We're the ones who hear the gun shots. We're the ones who hear the police sirens. We're the ones who have to comfort families when these things happen. Enough's enough," said Mayor Jon Mitchell, D-New Bedford, Mass.

The coalition is pressuring Congress to toughen federal gun laws, including banning assault weapons and cracking down on interstate gun trafficking. Menino says a national policy is necessary to keep guns from illegally crossing state lines.

"Guns have no borders," he said. "They don't stop at the border of Vermont and Massachusetts and say, 'oh, I got a gun. I got to stop.' No, they keep on coming."

In 2009, the coalition tracked how often guns purchased in one state were recovered from crime scenes in another state. Vermont ranked 16th nationally and topped every state in the Northeast, exporting more guns per capita than New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and New York.

Mitchell says these black market guns are increasing violence on his streets. "If you're a young person and you've got a beef with somebody and you're inclined to use a gun, you go to another state. You go to Maine. You go to Vermont."

Where, he says, lax guns laws make it easier for firearms to fall into the wrong hands.

Special Agent Gene Marquez of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said, "It's what we call lying and buying."

Marquez is talking about straw purchases or when someone buys a gun for an individual who can't legally own one. Vermont's growing guns-for-drugs trade is the classic example.

"You've got someone who is a drug trafficker getting a gun from somebody who has an addiction or a drug use problem," said Tris Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont.

ATF says Vermont attracts gunrunners because its gun prices are cheaper and drug prices are higher.

"So, that creates a market where you have drugs coming in and you have guns going out," Marquez explained.

As drug dealers get more Vermonters hooked on crack and heroin, property crimes and home break-ins also rise, as desperate addicts look for guns to steal.

"It happens to be the kind of criminal activity that raises among the biggest public safety threats here," Coffin said.

Drug dealers can get guns from straw purchasers for about $400, and then trade them in Massachusetts for drugs worth twice that.

ATF gave us photos of a 2003 closed case where Massachusetts dealers were buying firearms at a Southern Vermont flea market in exchange for cash and narcotics. They would recoup their investment by tripling drug prices back in Vermont.

According to ATF, between 2006 and 2010, 126 Vermont guns were recovered at crime scenes in Massachusetts. But ATF officials say that number is conservative because many more guns sit in evidence lockers and are never traced.

New York's population is 30 times that of Vermont, yet it exported half as many crime guns to Massachusetts during the same five-year span.

"Gun sales are much more highly regulated in New York," Coffin said.

In comparison, New Hampshire flooded Massachusetts with 527 crime guns. Maine added 425 more.

"One gun that's trafficked illegally is one gun too many," Marquez said.

It's a scenario Rutland Mayor Chris Louras knows all too well.

"Individuals should and must be held accountable if they're going to buy guns and give them to bad guys," Louras said.

Five years ago, a Brandon woman lied to a Rutland gun shop to get a handgun for Carlos Vasquez. The New York drug dealer then used the straw purchase during a shootout on Grove Street. He was killed. His murderer was never caught. Tammy Lynn Waite was sentenced to three years probation for buying the gun.

"That's not holding someone accountable for their actions," Louras said.

The deadly gunbattle prompted him to become Vermont's first mayor to join Menino's coalition.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Do you think that Vermonters are aware of the impact that their guns are having out of state?

Mayor Chris Louras: Probably not! I follow the illegal gun issue as closely as anyone does and frankly you took me by surprise.

Boston's mayor had some blunt words for Vermont when we spoke to him.

Jennifer Reading: Do you think there's something Vermont could do help out the gun crime and the guns coming into your state?

Mayor Tom Menino: Pass some good legislation to prevent the ability to buy guns so easily in Vermont.

Coffin says there is no federal law on the books against gun trafficking. He wants that to change, as well as up the penalties for straw purchasers. But he admits the best laws won't help unless the state's drug addiction that's driving the demand is addressed.

"Fundamentally one of the big issues here is drugs and substance abuse, and the really dangerous things that substance abuse drives people to do," Coffin said.

In a state full of gun owners, Vermont's senior senator is walking a fine line. Sen. Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation to crackdown on straw purchases. The bill would give police better tools to investigate these crimes and up federal jail time for those who are caught.

Gun legislation is an emotional topic, so I want to point out that every lawmaker I spoke to in Massachusetts and Vermont stressed that the reform they want does not take aim at the Second Amendment or law abiding citizens. They simply want better tools want to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons and drug dealers.

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