February 10, 2013

Many sales of firearms in Maine fall under the radar

Private gun transactions require no background checks and little paperwork, and they are almost impossible to trace.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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"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.

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