Not long ago in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, police raided a home where they believed drugs were being sold. As officers took away three men in handcuffs, Sgt. Detective Al Terrestri described the bust as one yielding marijuana, cocaine — and a sawed-off shotgun. It was an old one, beat up, with duct tape wrapped around the grip. Terrestri said it looked plenty deadly.
"It does, and if it was pointing at me, it would be an issue," Terrestri says.
Many cities across the country also have an issue: They are being hit by a troubling escalation of gun violence. Mayors from Seattle to Milwaukee to New York are alarmed by what they say is a thriving trade of illegal guns flooding their cities. The same is true in Boston, which is facing a wave of deadly shootings. Although Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, police are struggling to slow the flow of guns from neighboring states with weaker laws.
A Trade Difficult to Trace
Boston police say more and more old guns like the one found in Dorchester are turning up on the streets. Back in the 1990s, police say, guns used in crimes were usually new. But ever since the Brady Bill became law in 1994, anyone buying from a licensed gun dealer has been required to undergo a background check. The law does not apply to sales between individuals, and most states permit private sales at gun shows and flea markets, without records or background checks.
According to Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce, criminals now favor older guns that have passed discreetly from owner to owner for many years before they ended up as crime guns.
"The ability to trace those firearms is very, very difficult when they're being purchased at flea markets and kitchen table markets," Joyce says. "It's in some cases impossible to trace them."
Massachusetts requires all gun sales to be recorded and all sellers to be licensed. But according to Joyce, it's easy to get a gun in nearby Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where private sales are virtually unregulated.
"It is a challenge," he says, "when individuals can drive 45 minutes north from Massachusetts to buy firearms."
Tracking the Victims
At his Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester, the Rev. Bruce Wall has posted the names of hundreds of young people who have been killed in the streets of Boston over the past decade and a half. The number of murders hit a 10-year high last year, and the violence is continuing this year, so Wall has had to update his grim list of names.
"This season right now is the worst that I've experienced," Wall says. He describes a pair of recent shootings just two blocks from his church. In the most recent one, police say 19 to 20 shots were fired. The week before that, a 16-year-old boy was shot and seriously wounded. Wall says the boy clutched his stomach as he waited for an ambulance.
"When the EMS came, he removed his hands — the blood started to pour out," Wall recalls. "I have never seen anything like this before."
Wall says easy access to out-of-state guns is partly responsible for the violence. Among the easiest ways to get the guns is with a straw purchaser — an out-of-state resident who buys the guns legally, and then hands them over to someone from Boston.
With Wall one day at his church are two men who have been involved in gun trafficking. They agree to talk about it if they're not identified by name — because they say they fear for their lives. The first is 34 years old, from Boston. He says he used to make regular trips to Georgia to buy four or five guns at a time.
"We always had a person who was connected on that side," he says; all it took was money. "It was that easy."
The other man, 27 years old, also from Boston, says he could get out-of-state guns without leaving the city. He would simply have a straw purchaser buy the guns and ship them.
"I would ask someone, and the next thing I knew, it was in the Fed-Ex truck or UPS — all the way from California," he says.
A Buyer's Market for Guns
Boston police say 60 percent of recovered crime guns now come from out of state. They say gun-runners increasingly depend on straw purchasers — in states as close as New Hampshire and as a far away as Georgia and Florida. And they say there's an abundant supply of guns in the streets.
One of the former gun-runners agreed, and said it is now a buyer's market, in which the going price for a pistol is dropping. He said three months ago, the going street price for a pistol could run as high as $2,000, but now, with such an abundant supply, prices are dropping to as low as $200.
"Sneaker money" can buy a pistol now, he said, adding that buyers "don't want to go to a gun fight without a gun."
An Old Debate Reignited
John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Boston-based group Stop Handgun Violence, says the upsurge in violence means it is time for uniform, national background checks on all gun purchases — not just on sales by licensed dealers.
"We've reached a dangerous tipping point," he says.
Rosenthal says federal policy (or lack of it) encourages unfettered access to guns. In 32 states, for example, guns can be sold at thousands of gun shows without criminal background checks. Massachusetts may have strong gun laws and a low firearm-fatality rate, "but we're surrounded by states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where guns are virtually unrestricted," he says.
The growing concern about guns has reignited an old debate with gun-rights advocates, who say gun control laws don't work. Among them is Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association.
Wallace says Prohibition was a failure; so was the so-called war on drugs, and so are legislative attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. Wallace asks whether prohibiting things has ever stopped criminals from getting a hold of them…and then answers his own question: "No!"
Wallace says the problem of too many guns in the hands of criminals requires tougher law enforcement — not tougher gun laws in states with low crime-rates. He says it's a mistake to pick on states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, which he points out have much less crime than Massachusetts. He says gun-control laws reduce the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, while leaving the guns with the bad guys.
"If we just rely on [tougher gun laws,] we're still leaving the criminal element on the street," he says.
Wallace points out that since Massachusetts passed strict gun laws in 1998, gun crimes have actually increased. Gun control advocates say it's disingenuous to blame that on too many gun laws. They attribute the violence to a lack of jobs and social programs, fewer cops on the street — and a lack of tough, uniform federal gun-control laws.
This is an old debate, but one that frustrates the Rev. Mr. Wall in Boston, who compares the fight against gun violence with the struggle for civil rights. He says the battle right now for people of color in Boston is to save young people from the growing violence.
"And it's not a rope," he says. "It is a gun."
Mayors Want Action
At an April gun summit in New York City, mayors from 15 big cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas and Milwaukee, complained about 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States, and urged Washington to pass stricter gun-control laws. In their statement of principles, the mayors vowed to "punish to the maximum extent of the law criminals who possess, use, and traffic in illegal guns."
Already attempting to make good on that pledge, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is suing more than a dozen gun dealers in five states for allegedly supplying his city with hundreds of crime guns.
The mayors also want access to gun-trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to combat illegal trafficking. But BATF is prohibited from sharing that data, which includes serial numbers and other particulars that can determine a crime gun's origin. For the past four years, Congress has attached amendments to an appropriations bill to prohibit BATF from sharing the data with local government officials. The amendments have been supported by the National Rifle Association to prevent the gun trace data from being used to sue gun manufacturers. A bill pending in the House would make the prohibition permanent.
It seems unlikely that the mayors will get what they want from Washington any time soon. But they vow to continue pressing their efforts to reduce the number of guns on their streets. And they plan to convene a larger gun summit — with as many as 50 mayors — later this year.