Could more laws stop illegal gun purchases?

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Published: Sep. 14, 2018 at 5:49 PM EDT
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Five Vermonters were arrested for allegedly trading guns for drugs in Boston. The case is an example of what the cops call straw purchases and they believe this is an all too common way to illegally funnel guns to gangs in other states.

The defendants, all from St. Albans, pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday. According to federal officials, Tyson Wells, Dara Bessette, Sierra Lacoste, Laci Baker and Megan West provided false information to gun shops in Franklin County when purchasing the firearms. The feds say the suspects then exchanged the guns for heroin and crack cocaine with members of the Latin Kings gang from South Boston.

Our Dom Amato spoke with police about how often this happens in Vermont and what can be done to help combat this hidden crime.

"I'm not sure we see it a lot; I think it happens a lot," St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said.

Taylor says his department and others around Vermont don't have the time or staff to check gun dealers regularly for potential straw purchasers. He knows it's a problem but a solution is another question.

"I don't know that you can stop it," Taylor said.

Gun buyers are required to fill out federal transaction records when purchasing a firearm. That includes checking boxes stating the gun is for you, and you won't give it to someone else. You also must confirm you do not use drugs.

"It really is the honesty and integrity of the person making the purchase," the chief said.

"You could come in here and buy a firearm from me and say it's for you. And if you decide to be bad, there's nothing I can do about it," said Jim Dattilio, who owns a gun and tackle shop in South Burlington.

Dattilio says he would deny any purchase if he thought the buyer was being untruthful.

"If we even suspect a straw purchase, we'll come right out and ask them," Dattilio said.

But a straw purchase may be hard to detect. Taylor knows other states see Vermont as an easy target to get guns because Vermont has fewer limits on gun ownership.

"They do see us as a supplier of illegal weapons in Boston," Taylor said. "I think it makes us look bad."

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 26 guns were recovered in Massachusetts that came from Vermont in 2017. The number of guns that go from Vermont to other states is the highest in bordering states. But these are only the guns that are recovered by police.

"I don't know that you can make a law different than we already have that can prevent this," Taylor said.

Taylor suggests one thing that could help is if Vermont adopted a federal law regarding convicted felons in possession of a firearm. It's a felony on the federal level but only a misdemeanor in Vermont.

"They're clamping down pretty good right now," Dattilio said.

He believes drugs are fueling straw purchasers and he doesn't believe more gun restrictions are the answer.

"We do not need any stricter gun laws," he said. "We already have enough."

Of course, Vermont was long known for having virtually no state gun control laws. But just this spring, the Legislature enacted several new restrictions, including background checks for private sales, raising the minimum purchase age to 21, limiting the size of magazines and allowing police to seize guns from dangerous people. It's unclear whether any of those restrictions will have any impact on straw purchases.