FACT CHECK: SAM’s Trahan misleads in op-ed
David Trahan, the leading spokesperson for the No on 3 campaign, authored an op-ed in today’s Kennebec Journal that distorts the facts and unfairly maligns a respected former US Attorney. Below is a breakdown of the falsehoods contained in Trahan’s piece.
Paula Silsby, who supports the YES on 3 campaign and appeared in a recent ad, was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine from 2001 to 2010. She served as Maine’s U.S. Attorney during the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama. Before her appointment, she worked as an assistant federal prosecutor for 20 years. While Maine’s US Attorney, Silsby prosecuted cases where guns sold in Maine turned up at crime scenes in other states.
“Silsby claimed that there were ‘loopholes’ in Maine firearm laws, and said, “More than 1,500 guns sold in Maine turned up at crime scenes in other states.” In front of her in the ad appeared the image, “Bangor Daily News, 11/17/2009.” This ad makes it appear Maine is the wild-west of gun trafficking. Except, when you go to the article referenced, this is what the story says: “Data compiled by ATF traced 97 of the 1,534 guns it recovered in 2008 in Massachusetts to Maine.” Silsby got it all wrong — when you look at ATF’s actual data of traced guns that originated in Maine and later recovered outside of Maine for 2008 in all of the United States, it was 248. Silsby and Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership owe Maine people an apology.”
Silsby correctly states that more than 1,500 crime guns recovered outside of Maine were known to have been first purchased in Maine. ATF trace data shows that, between 2006 and 2014, there were 1,510 such firearm recoveries. Trahan’s claim of 248 guns recovered is from 2008 data only. Apparently, 248 guns trafficked out Maine and used to commit crimes in a single year is inconsequential to the gun lobby. Our campaign coalition, including Paula Silsby, feels this is unacceptable
Trahan is cherry-picking one year, 2008, from Silsby’s tenure as US Attorney. And he is mischaracterizing the citation the ad uses.
Additionally, Trahan mischaracterizes the Bangor Daily News article he cites. The BDN article was used as a citation at a later part of the ad, to substantiate Silsby’s experience prosecuting some of these cases and to demonstrate that “Gun trafficking is a growing issue in Maine.”
In fact, the numbers of guns trafficked out of Maine has only grown since the BDN article.
“According to the ATF, in 2015, Maine was the eighth-lowest state in the nation in that category, with 277 firearms found at a crime scenes in other states.”
Trahan misleads readers by ranking Maine only in the context of the raw number of crime guns, originally purchased from Maine but recovered in other states. Further, he dismisses the danger that those 277 guns created for police and crime victims.
- Ranking the states per capita, Maine actually had the 26th-worst rate of firearms recovered out-of-state in 2015.
- Maine’s ranking is worse than nearly every state that requires background checks for all handgun sales — 15 out of 17 such states with laws in place in 2015.
- Indeed, 11 out of the 12 states with the lowest crime gun export rate were states that require background checks for all handgun sales.
“The Yes on 3 campaign also claims if we pass Question 3 it will keep guns out of the hands of ‘bad guys.’ Let’s look at how a similar plan worked in the three states (2015) where almost identical laws have been in effect for several years, Colorado (879), Oregon (828), and Washington state, (1,145).”
When adjusted for population size, Maine has a higher rate of crime guns recovered in other states than any of the states Trahan cites. Last year, 277 crime guns originally obtained in Maine were used in crimes across the nation. This is an exceedingly high number for a state that has a small population and shares a border with only one other state.
In fact, Maine’s rate per capita of firearms found at a crime scene in other states was actually worse than nearly every state that requires background checks for all handgun sales.
And the consequences of this high rate are stark: for example, in March 2012, Jason Lee Morrill purchased a 9mm handgun from an unlicensed seller via a classified ad listed in Uncle Henry’s in Maine. Morrill was prohibited from purchasing the gun due to a previous felony conviction, but the unlicensed seller was not required to conduct a background check. Morrill immediately resold the gun, and two months later it was recovered from a crime scene in the Bronx where a suspect had exchanged fire with a New York City police officer. (Bangor Daily News 1/18/14)
But Trahan is right to look at states that have recently enacted laws requiring background checks for all gun sales to see whether those laws are working to prevent dangerous people from getting guns. In fact, in Colorado, more than 1,000 sales to prohibited purchasers — including convicted felons, domestic abusers, and other dangerous people — have been blocked since the state enacted its background check law in 2013.
“It is already illegal for a prohibited person from Massachusetts to buy a gun from an unlicensed seller in Maine”
There is no way for an unlicensed seller to know if he is selling to an out-of-state resident or a prohibited person unless they do a background check. Trahan himself acknowledges these prohibitions apply only if the unlicensed seller “has reasonable cause to believe” that the buyer is prohibited and/or an out-of-stater. There is no legal requirement for a background check, or even to ask basic questions about a person’s criminal history or place of residence. This is exactly why dangerous people seek unlicensed sellers. The only way to know if a prospective purchaser is prohibited is to conduct a background check, which is what Question 3 requires.
“proponents claim that gun sales may be made via classifieds or online. Can guns legally be mailed to the buyer’s home without a background check? No. The GCA makes handguns and concealable firearms non-mailable. A violation is already a federal felony.”
FACT CHECK: Under Maine law, buyers can buy guns from unlicensed sellers — often complete strangers they meet online or through classified ads — with no background check and no questions asked. These sales are completed in person — often in parking lots, as in the case earlier this year, when a young woman was unintentionally shot and killed during an unlicensed sale her fiance was conducting in the parking lot of the Bath Shaw’s supermarket.
A recent study indicated that nearly 3,000 such gun sales are available in Maine each year via just two sources, Uncle Henry’s and ArmsList.com — and research shows that criminals and other prohibited purchasers regularly seek out this loophole in order to buy a gun without a background check.
Under Question 3, instead of meeting in a parking lot, an unlicensed seller would simply meet a potential buyer at a licensed dealer, who would run a background check just as if the dealer were selling the gun from his inventory.
“There are no “loopholes” that allow non-residents to traffic guns in and out of Maine. Some guns…were illegally acquired and transported in violation of the existing law. Question 3 won’t make a bit of difference…criminals who don’t obey existing laws, won’t obey new laws.”
Background checks are the most effective way to prevent prohibited persons from easily buying firearms:
- Criminals and other dangerous people do submit to background checks. Indeed, since the background check system was put in place, it has stopped nearly 3 million gun sales nationwide to felons, domestic abusers, the severely mentally ill, and other people legally prohibited from having guns. [Bureau of Justice Studies, “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2013–14 – Statistical Tables,” June 2016, available at: http://bit.ly/2dHbJzK.]
- In Colorado, which passed a similar background check law in 2013, more 1,000 unlicensed sales to prohibited buyers have already been stopped.
“The only private firearm sales in Maine now legal under federal law are from one Maine resident to another who is not prohibited from owning a firearm. Question 3 could have been written to address these types of in-state sales, but it was not.”
The point is — unlicensed sellers do not know if their buyers are prohibited from having guns, and dangerous people take advantage. There is no way to confirm that a buyer is allowed by law to own a gun without a background check, in the same way that dealers already do for sales from their own shelves.
“If background checks made us safer, Question 3 might merit revision. We know they don’t.”
Background checks are quantifiably effective. States with background checks for all handgun sales have 48% fewer police officers killed with handguns, 48% fewer suicides with firearms, and 46% fewer women shot to death by an intimate partner. And background checks have stopped millions of illegal gun purchases by prohibited purchasers — felons, domestic abusers, and other dangerous people.
“In 2000, the American Medical Association did a national study on this very issue. The AMA study showed no improvement in homicide or suicide rates in states with expanded background checks. Someone should get this study to Silsby.”
Trahan’s information is dated. The best evidence is the modern data (FBI statistics from 2009 and 2015) showing that in states requiring background checks for all handgun sales, 48% fewer police officers are killed with handguns, there are 48% fewer gun suicides, and 46% fewer women are shot to death by an intimate partner.
Further, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, a 1994 Connecticut law requiring all gun buyers to pass a background check resulted in a 40% decrease in gun homicides over two decades. The Connecticut law closed the same private sale loophole that would be closed by Question 3. [Washington Post, 6/12/15]
In contrast, when the state of Missouri repealed its law requiring background checks for unlicensed handgun sales in 2007, they saw a 14% increase in murders and a 25% increase in firearm homicides, according to a John Hopkins study. [Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, and Jon S. Vernick, Erratum to: Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides, 3 Journal of Urban Health 91, (June 2014).]
The Maine Medical Association has supported closing the background check loophole since 2000 and has reaffirmed that position in 2007 and 2012.