Every year, about 90 guns originally purchased in Maine turn up at crime scenes, are abandoned or get confiscated by police in Massachusetts.

Those guns account for 8 or 9 percent of all “crime guns” recovered by police in Massachusetts – a figure that has held steady for the past decade amid rising and falling crime rates.

Gun trafficking from Maine to other states is often cited by Question 3 backers as a chief reason to require background checks prior to all private gun sales. Yet advocates on both sides of Question 3 acknowledge that tackling gun trafficking – which is intimately linked with drug trafficking – will require enforcing existing federal laws as well as better educating Maine gun sellers.

National gun control groups and gun owners’ rights organizations will be watching closely Nov. 8 as voters in Maine cast ballots on a measure that supporters insist will close a dangerous loophole that allows convicted felons and the mentally ill to buy firearms in Maine’s thriving private gun marketplace. Those supporters contend Maine’s lack of background checks on private sales helps fuel the trafficking problem. A similar proposal is on the ballot in Nevada.

Opponents dismiss the proposals as feel-good measures that will only affect law-abiding gun owners and do nothing to stop individuals already intent on breaking the law.

“It’s another example of asking to put more laws on the books without arresting or prosecuting for laws already on the books,” said Lars Dalseide, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, which is heavily involved in the Question 3 campaign.

FUELING THE ‘IRON PIPELINE’

While Maine has among the lowest crime rates in the nation, police and civic leaders in Massachusetts say the state’s weaker firearms laws help feed gun violence on the streets of Boston and other cities.

The most recent federal data show that Maine continues to be a top source for guns recovered by police in Massachusetts, a state with among the strictest gun control laws.

Between 2010 and 2015, police in Massachusetts recovered, seized or found 539 guns that were originally purchased in Maine. Massachusetts is one of a handful of states – along with New York and New Jersey – where roughly one-third or less of the guns recovered by police were originally sold in that state, an analysis of federal data from 2008 to 2015 shows. Advocates attribute that fact to Massachusetts’ stringent permitting system for handgun owners, which requires passage of a background check.

In Maine, by comparison, roughly 75 percent of recovered guns since 2008 were traced back to a sale in Maine.

Guns from Maine consistently account for between 8 and 9 percent of the firearms recovered by Massachusetts police for the past decade, according to data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. That places Maine second behind New Hampshire as the top source states for “crime guns” in Massachusetts other than those purchased in-state.

“Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, their gun laws are very lax so it is easy to acquire firearms versus in states like Massachusetts or Connecticut,” said Special Agent Christopher Arone with the ATF’s Boston Field Division. That makes states like Maine into source states for the thriving underground market in places such as Massachusetts.

“That seems to go hand-in-hand with the drug trade,” Arone said.

Law enforcement officials say the growing heroin crisis in Maine and throughout northern New England could be helping fuel this so-called “Iron Pipeline” of guns flowing south in exchange for drugs flowing north.

In one recent case, members of a New Haven, Connecticut, street gang were charged with using “straw purchasers” – which is already a federal crime – to buy guns from pawnshops in the Bangor area. The gang members then exchanged the guns for cash or drugs, including heroin, while the firearms were distributed to members of the Red Side Guerilla Brims gang in New Haven. Several gang members were later charged with murder for killings in Connecticut.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said “there is no question that is happening” when asked about the guns-for-drugs trade. By expanding background checks to private sales, Sauschuck said, Maine could at least make it harder for guns to enter the iron pipeline.

“The simple fact is that about 5,500 people have been turned away from the gun counter (after a background check) since the law went into effect in 1998,” Sauschuck said, referring to the federal Brady Act law, which required background checks for all firearms sold by licensed dealers. “So people are trying to purchase firearms even though they are prohibited, … and we know there are prohibited persons who are falling through these loopholes because they are not required to get a background check” on private sales.

LAWS ARE ALREADY BEING BROKEN

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s David Trahan, who is helping lead the campaign against Question 3, doesn’t dispute that gun trafficking – especially in exchange for drugs – is an issue. He doubts, however, that expanding background checks will address the problem in a meaningful way.

“If you have a criminal, gun-running organization, they’re not going to go through a background check,” Trahan said. “They’re going to get their guns another way.”

Selling guns across state lines is already illegal in most circumstances under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 unless the sale is handled by a licensed gun dealer, who is required to conduct background checks. So any Mainer knowingly selling guns to residents of Massachusetts or other states is already breaking the law unless the sale is conducted through a federally licensed dealer.

“Straw purchases” of firearms – in which someone buys a gun from a licensed dealer on behalf of someone else – is also a federal crime. Instead, Trahan said the federal government needs to send a message by aggressively prosecuting convicted felons and other “prohibited persons” who lie on their background check form.

Trahan also acknowledged that his organization and others have a role to play in educating gun owners about the law and encouraging gun sellers to run a background check if they do not know the buyer.

“There is an educational component where 10 percent of the (gun-owning) population or maybe just 5 percent doesn’t know you can’t sell a firearm to an out-of-state buyer,” Trahan said. “We understand that there needs to be some education done here to make sure people know the law.”

That was the case – or the claim, at least – of an Acton man who sold an estimated 100 handguns to a convicted felon from Massachusetts over several months in 2009 and 2010. Police in Lynn, Massachusetts, later recovered some of those guns in arrests. The seller, Randy Goodwin, was sentenced to three months in jail after claiming he was ignorant of the prohibition against selling a firearm to a resident of another state.

Question 3 has also divided Maine’s law enforcement community. While the Maine Chiefs of Police Association endorsed the expanded background checks, most of the state’s elected sheriffs oppose the measure.

THE EXTENT OF GUN TRAFFICKING

Gun trafficking is by no means a new issue, nor is it unique to New England.

Leaders in states across the country with stricter gun laws have complained for years about guns flowing across their borders via a black market facilitated by states with weaker purchasing requirements. Arone estimated that 90 percent of the ATF’s workload is spent on the “firearms” portion of the bureau’s name.

An October 2016 analysis conducted by the New York Attorney General’s Office found that between 2010 and 2015, 74 percent of “crime guns” recovered by police were traced back to sales in other states, including 86 percent of handguns. The study concluded that one in every five of those guns showed signs of “recent trafficking.”

Guns flowing along New York’s “Iron Pipeline” primarily come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. But Maine accounted for 262 of those recovered guns during the six-year period.

“It shows that New York’s laws requiring universal background checks and permits for handguns are working to keep criminals from purchasing these weapons within the state,” the New York Attorney General’s Office said. “But with ready access to guns in states without requirements for handgun licenses or background checks on private sales, gun traffickers easily purchase and import guns into New York. As a result, more than one in two recoveries is an out-of-state handgun.”

In 2015, 277 guns recovered in other states were traced back to Maine compared to 254 firearms in 2014, according to ATF statistics. Massachusetts was the largest recipient state by far, with 94 and 85 firearms traced to the Pine Tree State in those two years, respectively.

It’s occasionally a point of friction between leaders in Massachusetts and Maine as well as between Massachusetts and New Hampshire, whose gun laws largely mirror Maine’s.

For several years in the mid-2000s, the organization Stop Handgun Violence erected a billboard along Interstate 95 in Boston criticizing Maine, New Hampshire and several other states for not requiring background checks on private gun sales.

And this year the mayor of one Massachusetts city raised the issue in a strongly worded response to Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s racially charged comments about drug traffickers bringing heroin to Maine. Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, whose community had been singled out by LePage, called for cooperation on the opiate and gun crises, not divisiveness.

“His comments help no one,” Rivera said. “You don’t hear us bemoaning the flood of guns bought in Maine with its weak gun laws. No, we discuss how we can fix our gun problem together. We don’t blame anyone. We find a solution.”

Sauschuck, the Portland police chief, said the gun-for-drugs trade is creating problems on both ends.

“From my end, it’s obvious that we have an issue with the state of Maine,” Sauschuck said. “But our dope is coming from down south.”

MARATHON BOMBING CONNECTION

While supporters and opponents can debate the merits of Question 3, there is no disputing that guns purchased in Maine occasionally turn up at crime scenes in Massachusetts or other states.

In fact, a 9 mm semiautomatic from Maine played a tragic role in the Boston Marathon bombings. During the post-bombing manhunt, the Tsarnaev brothers used a Ruger pistol to kill a 27-year-old police officer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That gun and several others were purchased legally at Cabela’s in Scarborough in November 2011. But within the year, the buyer had passed the gun – illegally, it would seem – along to another man who police said was involved in the Portland drug trade. It then changed hands several more times among acquaintances in Maine and Massachusetts – with its serial number filed off along the way – before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev borrowed the gun from a friend.

Either Dzhokhar or Tamerlan Tsarnaev used the P95 Ruger to shoot MIT Officer Sean Collier in April 2013 and then again to carjack a motorist. Finally, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fired the gun at officers – and then threw the empty pistol at them – prior to being shot and then run over by his fleeing brother.

To be fair, it is unlikely the background checks proposed under Question 3 would have stopped the Ruger from being passed among people already involved in low-level crimes. But the fact that less than a year and a half elapsed between the gun’s initial purchase in Scarborough and the Boston Marathon bombing illustrates how quickly firearms can move among criminal networks in Maine and Massachusetts.

In a more recent case, members of the Red Side Guerilla Brims gang out of New Haven were shown to have purchased at least 20 guns in the Bangor area as part of the guns-for-drugs trade. But again, those purchases involved “straw purchasers” who were legal to purchase guns but broke federal laws by buying them for others.

Dalseide with the NRA, which has already spent several hundred thousand dollars opposing Question 3 in Maine, argues that enforcing existing laws against straw purchasing is a better way to address the gun trafficking issue. He pointed to 50 federal laws dealing with firearms.

“If somebody comes into Maine to buy a gun to shop out of state for nefarious purposes, that is already against the law, so this new law doesn’t address that,” Dalseide said.

But David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, said it is not an either/or scenario when it comes to addressing gun trafficking. In addition to enforcing laws prohibiting straw purchases, Maine must close the loophole that allows private individuals to sell guns with almost no questions asked.

“Straw purchasing is part of the issue but, right now, if you go to ArmsList.com or to Uncle Henry’s, there is no requirement that they ask any questions at all” of potential buyers, Farmer said. By adding a background check on unlicensed sales, he said, you are going to ask those questions.

“A background check solves that question of having someone document if they are from in-state or out-of-state,” Farmer said. “But without a background check, you have to take somebody at their word.”