By Kevin Miller
WASHINGTON - Two men met in a Portland hospital parking lot last spring and, after a brief conversation, traded $325 for a 9 mm handgun. One month later, the gun turned up near the scene of a shootout with police in New York City.
In 2010, another handgun was used in two murders in Portland. When police tried to trace its history, the trail dead-ended with an undocumented private sale at a Maine gun show.
In yet another case, a Boston man received 17 years behind bars in 2009 for running an interstate circuit to supply his fellow gang members with guns purchased from sellers advertising in Uncle Henry's, a popular Maine classified circular.
These separate incidents share a common thread: Before they ended up in the "wrong hands," the guns were sold in Maine's thriving and largely unsupervised private gun marketplace, where there are no background checks, no waiting periods and little paperwork.
Gun control advocates and law enforcement officials have long argued that Maine and other states with unregulated private gun sales are an easy source of weapons for criminals or mentally unstable people who couldn't get a gun from a licensed dealer. And they say federal gun traces support their claims.
"(The majority) of our crime guns come from other states and very often from states that have more lax gun laws than Massachusetts," said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney David Conley, whose jurisdiction includes Boston. "A state with strict or reasonable gun laws is still subject to crimes committed with guns from states with weaker laws."
After December's shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, pressure is growing both in Maine and nationally to require background checks on all gun sales -- whether they take place at an L.L. Bean counter or from the trunk of a car.
But many members of Congress -- including most of Maine's delegation -- have voiced skepticism about the practicality and feasibility of a universal system. And gun owners' rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, are gearing up for a fight.
"Let's be honest: background checks will never be 'universal,' because criminals will never submit to them," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told a congressional committee in January.
'GET THEM WHILE YOU STILL CAN'
Guns are a part of the cultural fabric of Maine, particularly in rural areas, where blaze orange is always in style come fall, and talk of "the lottery" usually means moose, not Powerball.
There are no statistics for annual firearms sales in Maine, because neither private buyers nor licensed dealers are required to report them. But dealers must request background checks, and FBI figures show that the number of checks sought in Maine through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, rose from 56,561 in 2008 to 91,834 in 2012 -- a 62 percent increase in four years.
One of the most popular venues for private gun sales in Maine appears to be Uncle Henry's, a weekly classified advertising circular published in print and online.
Its pages contain hundreds of ads selling all things firearms-related: ammunition clips, pistol grips, scopes, holsters and, of course, guns of almost any size, caliber or appearance. Two items in the sights of gun control advocates -- large-capacity ammunition magazines and AR-15 assault rifles -- were popular in several recent issues and online.
"Get them while you still can," urged one ad for 30-round ammunition clips for AR-15 and M-16 rifles. "Obamah (sic) will do whatever he can to stop manufacture of these items as soon as he can."
Kevin Webb, the publisher of Augusta-based Uncle Henry's, declined to comment Friday about the issue of background checks on private sales, saying that is a policy issue for lawmakers to settle. Uncle Henry's will follow whatever law is on the books, he said.
"We provide a service to our customers" who are expected to operate "within the confines of the law," Webb said.
GUNS GO ASTRAY
While some sellers take precautions, evidence shows that guns still go astray.
In March 2012, two men arranged to meet in a parking lot at Mercy Hospital's Fore River Campus for a sale. A Portland resident, Jason Lee Morrill, purchased a 9 mm Taurus handgun from an unnamed Windham man who had advertised in Uncle Henry's.
According to court filings, the seller asked for the required proof that Morrill was a Maine resident and documented the transaction with a bill of sale, which would later be used to prosecute Morrill. But had the seller gone the extra, voluntary step of conducting a background check, Morrill would have been rejected due to a felony conviction.
Morrill immediately sold the 9 mm to a New York acquaintance. And two months later, an NYPD sergeant patrolling in the Bronx exchanged fire with a suspect in an armed robbery attempt. The Maine gun was later found near the crime scene.
"We're not talking about selling lawn mowers or something on your front lawn," said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, who has joined a nationwide campaign of mayors and law enforcement officials to pressure Congress to adopt a universal background check. "We are talking about a firearm."
In another case, a gun apparently was used by two separate shooters to kill two people in Portland in 2010.
Police arrested a man in one murder in February 2010 and, using forensic techniques, linked the same .45-caliber handgun to a shooting a month earlier that led to the death of 25-year-old Darien Richardson. But the man in custody denied any involvement in Richardson's shooting, claiming he had purchased the gun from someone else.
A subsequent Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives trace of the weapon hit a dead end at a private sale at a Maine gun show.
"There's no documentation, no bill of sale, no background check," Sauschuck said. "So we have no idea where that weapon went after that (sale) or how many times it changed hands."
'KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER'
Federal and state authorities working through "Project Safe Neighborhoods" have compiled a Gun Sellers Safety Kit in Maine that contains, among other things, a list of dozens of licensed gun dealers willing to run background checks for private sellers, typically for a $20 or $25 fee.
But two years after the list was first released, several gun dealers say they rarely receive requests from private sellers.
"Unfortunately, we do not. I'd say maybe one to two a month," said John Reid, owner of J.T. Reid's Gun Shop in Auburn and organizer of several large gun shows in Maine. Reid is among the gun show operators in Maine who requires background checks for all sales, whether at a stall or person-to-person.
"If someone is selling to an individual they don't know, then I think that, realistically, that individual should be checked out," Reid said. "It's common sense."
Likewise, Stephen Smith of Smitty's Trading Post in Machias said he had "only done a couple" of checks at his shop.
"It's probably a good idea to know your customer," Smith said. "I think it is smart if a person is selling a gun -- whether through Uncle Henry's or not -- to have a guarantee."
Many private sellers, including those advertising in Uncle Henry's, explicitly state that they will sell only to buyers who have a valid Maine driver's license or state ID, which is required by Maine law. One assault rifle seller, who declined to comment when contacted, made clear that a buyer would have to produce ID and that the transaction would take place in a police parking lot.
Other sellers have their own stipulations.
Gary Paradis said he will not sell his handgun unless the buyer has a state ID and a concealed-weapons permit. A part-time police officer with 14 years of military service, Paradis said he supports proper firearms training. A concealed weapons permit shows that the carrier has had a background check and some level of safety training, he said.
"And I'm going to talk to you (before meeting to sell the gun)," Paradis said. "If I don't have a good gut feeling, I will not relinquish a weapon." While a strong believer in the Second Amendment, Paradis said he also firmly believes in the need for some gun control.
"It's a fine line," he added.
GUNS FLOW FROM STATE TO STATE
ATF data show that between 2006 and 2011, an average of 8.3 percent of the guns traced in Massachusetts originated in Maine, which consistently vies with New Hampshire as the top source of out-of-state guns recovered in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has among the tightest gun laws in the nation, at the heart of which is mandatory licensing for all would-be gun owners. Applicants must undergo a background check and reference check, which takes time, and law enforcement has more discretion to deny licenses.
Pro-regulation academics who study gun policies say such scenarios can be seen across the country, as guns flow from states with less stringent laws to those with tighter laws.
"There are very predictable and consistent associations between the relative strength of gun control laws in states and illegal gun channels," Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an email.
This trend is particularly pronounced in the Northeast, Webster wrote, where Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have strict gun laws and among the lowest percentages of crime guns traced back to sales within those states.
Between 2006 and 2011, 75 percent of the guns successfully traced in Maine originated in Maine. By comparison, the percentage of "homegrown" guns during that same period was 35 percent in Massachusetts, 31 percent in New York and 24 percent in New Jersey, according to the ATF data.
"The guns used in those states are overwhelmingly from states with weak gun laws, sometimes from states hundreds of miles away," Webster wrote.
'BACKDOOR GUN REGISTRATION'
Pro-gun groups such as the NRA and Gun Owners of America disagree with such conclusions, arguing that criminals care nothing for laws and will find ways to acquire guns. Instead, they say universal background checks will only impede law-abiding citizens' ability to sell a firearm to a neighbor, gift a gun to a family member or lend a rifle to a hunting buddy.
Additionally, the NRA points out repeatedly that the Obama administration only prosecuted 44 people in 2010 for lying on a background check form among the more than 72,000 rejected by the NICS system that year.
"If the Obama administration currently doesn't have the time or manpower to prosecute those who lie on background check forms, then why do they want more background checks, more paperwork and more forms? It's backdoor gun registration," Marion Hammer, a past president of the NRA, wrote recently in a column posted on the organization's website.
Right or wrong, some in Maine are concerned about a national gun-owner registry and potential government misuse of it, said David Trahan, director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. Absent a centralized federal database, Trahan does not see how a universal background check system would be enforceable because someone has to keep the records.
Others have raised concerns that dealers -- already struggling to keep up with demand -- will be buried in paperwork if they are expected to conduct the checks under a universal system.
But Trahan thinks the problem is few private sellers know that dealers will run the checks for them.
"No matter what happens in this debate, we are going to launch a significant education campaign to let people know this is available," Trahan said.
Many polls taken after the Newtown shootings suggest that the universal background check is, by far, the most popular aspect of Obama's gun control agenda.
Between 85 and 91 percent of Americans support mandatory background checks on all gun sales, according to recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Group, Johns Hopkins University and Gallup. A recent CNN poll suggested that support drops to 75 percent when participants are asked about background checks for private sales, however.
Nonetheless, convincing members of Congress may not be as easy, as evidenced by Maine's tri-partisan representation on Capitol Hill.
The only delegation member to come out strongly in favor of universal checks is Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and 2nd District Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud have all expressed reservations about how background checks could be applied to all private sales.
Nor is there universal support for a universal background check in Maine, even among dealers who recommend private sellers check their buyers.
"I wouldn't say I support it on all private sales," said Reid, the Auburn dealer who requires background checks for all sales at the gun shows he operates. But, he added, "it's a great conversation that we need to have. And it is past time that we do have it."
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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