Gun dealers attracted by Maine laws; Out-of-state weapons found at Boston crimes

This story was published on July 26, 2006 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

BANGOR – The Brady Gang came to Maine in the fall of 1937 for the same reasons 21st century criminals venture north of Boston – fall foliage, seafood and guns.

Not much appears to have changed since the FBI gunned down Public Enemy No. 1 Al Brady and his cohorts on Oct. 12, 1937, on Central Street in Bangor

Easy access by Interstate 95 and the state’s gun laws have lured illegal gun dealers from eastern Massachusetts to rural Maine to buy guns for resale in Boston, a law enforcement official in the Hub said last year.

Two cases pending in federal courts in Boston and Bangor show that over the past four years more than 40 guns have been purchased legally in Maine for illegal resale in Massachusetts. About one-third of them have been recovered from crime scenes and traced to their previous owners in Maine.

The issue drew media attention outside the Bay State in March when Boston officials and the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence unveiled a big billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike that criticized gun laws in other states. The billboard, which since has been removed, singled out Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Georgia as states, along with 29 others, that allow private owners to sell guns without criminal background checks of potential buyers.

“The proximity of New England states with less restrictive [gun laws] makes firearms more accessible to people here in Massachusetts,” Sgt. Thomas Sexton, a Boston Police Department spokesman, told The Boston Globe last year.

Sexton’s comments angered Thomas Colantuono, the U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, who in December said the accusation that lax gun control laws in northern New England were partly responsible for a rise in gun crimes in Boston was “an urban myth.”

Maine’s U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said Tuesday that guns have been traced to Maine from crime scenes in Boston, but she did not call for stricter gun laws. Her office consistently is in the top three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the nation for the number of gun cases it prosecutes.

Whether the number of guns flowing from northern New England to Massachusetts is a trickle or a flood seems to depend on where the official is sitting.

Less than 10 percent of guns used in Boston crimes come from Maine, according to records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives obtained earlier this year by Boston Magazine. The publication reported in March that in 2005, Maine and New Hampshire each accounted for about 7 percent of the total number of illegal guns recovered in Massachusetts, making the states the top two sources for Massachusetts-bound illegal guns.

Colantuono of New Hampshire disputed that figure last year. He said statistics showed that Georgia was the top source of out-of-state guns in Massachusetts.

Regardless of the guns’ source, Boston police reported in November that there are more guns on their city streets now than at any time in the previous six years.

That reverses the trend of the 1990s when many of the illegal guns recovered in Boston were traced to Southern states in the I-95 corridor such as Georgia, according to the magazine.

Federal law requires a five-day waiting period in every state for anyone seeking to buy a handgun from a federally licensed dealer to allow for a criminal background check. Potential buyers also must fill out an application form that asks, among other things, whether they are purchasing the gun on behalf of another person, which is illegal. Lying on the form is a federal crime.

In Massachusetts, in addition to passing the background check, a resident who wants a handgun must buy a state-issued permit for $100.

Such permits are not required in New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine. People buying handguns in those states must show identification that proves they are state residents when purchasing firearms. They can skip the background check and the required waiting period when they buy guns at a show or from an individual.

Two cases

Michael Fowler, 36, of Lynn, Mass., admitted earlier this year to using a fake Maine driver’s license when he purchased at least 18 guns in Maine and six in New Hampshire. Fowler, who used the name Michael Smith for the purchases in Maine, bought the guns from residents who had advertised in 2002 and 2003 in Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide.

The sellers did not commit any crime, Silsby said Monday.

After he purchased the guns, Fowler took them to his home in Lynn, a northern suburb of Boston, where he obliterated the serial numbers, then sold them. Many of the guns were found at crime scenes by law enforcement officials in the Boston area. Police were able to recover the serial numbers and trace the guns to previous owners, according to court documents.

A federal grand jury in Bangor indicted Fowler on gun charges in January 2004. His case was transferred last year to Boston where it was combined with pending charges in Massachusetts where he sold the guns he purchased in Maine.

Silsby said that was one way her office was cooperating with prosecutors in Boston.

People who are prohibited from purchasing firearms legally sometimes enlist Maine residents to buy guns for them.

Stephen Donald Brown, 54, of Pittsfield last week admitted that between November 2002 and March 2004 he bought about 30 guns, primarily in Penobscot and Oxford counties, for a black male he knew onlyas Jay.

Three days after Brown waived indictment and pleaded guilty July 17 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, he died of an undisclosed illness. The charges of making false statements in acquisition of a firearm are expected to be dismissed because of his death.

Brown told ATF agents that he met the man for whom he purchased the guns through the sister of Jay’s wife, who lives in Pittsfield, according to court documents. ATF agents stated in an affidavit filed in federal court in Bangor that Brown identified a photograph of Michael Marsh, also known as Michael Turner, of Fall River, Mass., as the man he knew as Jay.

Between April 2003 and January 2006, seven handguns and boxes from three additional handguns that Brown admitted selling to Jay were recovered from crime scenes in Boston, according to court documents.

Brown, who was scheduled to be sentenced this fall, faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.

Marsh has not been charged in federal court in Maine or Massachusetts.

Fowler is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 9 in U.S. District Court in Boston. He pleaded guilty in May to four counts – dealing in firearms without a license, being a felon in possession of a firearm, making an unregistered firearm, and the misuse of a Social Security number. In exchange for his guilty plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop four other charges including transportation of a firearm into a state of residence.

The U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Michael Sullivan, and national gun control activists have called on Congress to enact stricter and more uniform federal laws to help stem the illegal flow from states with less-restrictive gun laws, such as Maine, to states with stricter gun control laws, such as Massachusetts.

Silsby said Tuesday that Maine is opting for a program to educate gun sellers that will be unveiled this fall.

A1 for Wednesday, July 26, 2006

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