State's Drug Problem Is Feeding An Underground Gun Market

Feb 7, 2014

Law enforcement officials in Vermont and surrounding states say Vermont’s high-profile drug problem is feeding an underground market in which guns, not cash, are the currency.

The trade is fueled by the simple economics of supply and demand. Heroin and other hard drugs are cheaper in urban areas of Massachusetts and New York, while guns are abundant and readily available in Vermont because of the state’s lax gun control laws and Vermont’s culture of hunting and shooting sports.

Jim Mostyn is the resident agent in charge in the Vermont office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He said drug dealers who come to the state quickly learn that not only is Vermont a fertile market, but it’s also an easy place to pick up a weapon. Those firearms are either stolen or bought by a straw purchaser – a buyer with a clean record who is purchasing the gun for someone else, such as a convicted felon, who may not be legally allowed to own a gun. The guns are frequently traded directly for drugs, court records show, and often end up in metropolitan areas like Springfield, Mass., Boston, or New York City.

"Most of the firearms trafficking, if not all, has a nexus to narcotics." - Jim Mostyn, resident agent in charge, Vermont ATF

Inter-state disparities in drug prices and gun regulations combine to form a lucrative market for these scenarios, Mostyn said.

“Vermonters pay more money for the narcotics in this area than they’re worth down in the source areas for narcotics. And up here, guns are more readily accessible,” he said.

The dealers, he said, take advantage of that equation.

As a result, Vermont has become a common place for guns to pass from the realm of legitimate, legal ownership into criminal enterprises.

“In my experience, these guns, once they go into that illegal commerce of being traded like that, they stay in the illegal side,” Mostyn said. “I’ve never seen a case where they come back into legitimate commerce like at a gun store or something like that.”

A sign warning against illegal gun possession hangs in an evidence locker in the Burlington field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Guns traded for drugs "stay in the illegal side,” says Resident Agent in Charge Jim Mostyn.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Because of its illegal nature and because there is no requirement for private gun owners to report the sale or transfer of a gun, no one – including the ATF – knows exactly how many firearms are directly involved in the drug trade in Vermont. But Mostyn said such cases make up the majority of his office’s caseload.

“Most of the firearms trafficking, if not all, has a nexus to narcotics,” Mostyn said during an interview at the ATF’s Burlington field office.

Missing Weapons

Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, is well aware of the exchange of guns for drugs in Vermont; it’s a federal crime to carry a gun during a drug deal – a crime he has prosecuted often.

“You could talk to every prosecutor in this hall, pretty much, and they would say it’s something they've come across in their cases,” he said of his staff.

Court records tell the story of the Vermont connection.

  • In early summer of 2009, Floyd Artis, a Brooklyn drug dealer, gave a Rutland woman drugs in exchange for a Beretta handgun she bought at Gragin’s Gun Shop in Rutland, Mostyn said. A court affidavit filed by ATF Agent Mostyn said Artis’ girlfriend, Fatima Anderson brought that gun into a New York City police precinct just over a month later after the couple got into a “domestic incident” at their apartment. But most other Vermont guns traded for drugs still haven’t been recovered by law enforcement.
  • Videsh Raghoonanan, a New York City man, is in federal prison for his role operating a drug distribution network in the Burlington area. In the process of investigating that case, police learned of multiple handguns Raghoonanan received in exchange for heroin. One man, Justin Bosley of Shelburne, traded two handguns to Raghoonanan, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. The handguns have not been recovered.
  • In 2011, ATF agents interviewed August Nommik, a former Norwich University student, after a gun reported stolen from Derby turned up in Canada. Nommik admitted, according to a court affidavit, that “he had been acquiring firearms and smuggling them into Canada where he was trading them for cocaine and other illegal drugs from approximately August of 2010 until approximately February of 2011." By Nommik’s own estimates, “he had obtained and provided his Canadian drug supplier approximately 20 firearms including mostly handguns, but also at least two rifles.”

How many of those guns are still in possession of the dealer Nommik traded them to?

“We don’t know,” said the ATF’s Mostyn. At least one of the guns has been recovered by law enforcement. But Mostyn said one of the challenges in keeping track of firearms moved out of Vermont is that even if they are recovered by law enforcement, federal agents might never be notified.  

“We’re not going to know about it unless an agency not only recovers the gun, but they have to trace it,” he said, through ATF’s National Tracing Center. There’s no requirement for law enforcement to trace guns they’ve recovered.

Mostyn said that the majority of the trafficked guns his office knows about are still unaccounted for, at least as far as he knows.

Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, says most of the illegally trafficked guns he’s aware of haven’t been recovered.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR File Photo

U.S. Attorney Coffin agreed that most of the illegally trafficked guns he’s aware of haven’t been recovered, including a 9-mm Glock that was used to murder 31-year-old Melissa Barratt in Dummerston in 2011.

“I would say the vast majority of guns that we hear about going to prohibited persons – let’s say drug traffickers in particular – those don’t turn up in a trace where we know where they are,” he said. “And if a gun is going to someone who is making their living as a drug trafficker, I think most Vermonters would be willing to accept that that is not a gun that is being used for a good purpose.”

But the guns prosecutors know about are themselves a minority, Coffin said.

"Since we catch a relatively small proportion of the drug traffickers, we're going to be catching a relatively small proportion of the drug traffickers who are then exchanging drugs for guns." - Tristram Coffin, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont

“I understand, based on my knowledge of drug trafficking, that since we catch a relatively small proportion of the drug traffickers, we’re going to be catching a relatively small proportion of the drug traffickers who are then exchanging drugs for guns,” he said.

Exploiting Lax Laws

Gov. Peter Shumlin last month used his State of the State speech to focus attention on what he calls an epidemic of heroin and opiate addiction.

In a speech that drew national attention, Shumlin also noted the lucrative numbers behind the burgeoning drug problem.

"A $6 bag of heroin in New York City can go for up to $30 here,” the governor said. “So think about that: a $6 purchase could sell for five times as much, just a few hours up the interstate.”

In a 2014 State of the State address that drew national attention, Gov. Peter Shumlin shed light on what he called an "opiate epidemic" in Vermont and noted the lucrative numbers behind the burgeoning drug problem.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

That appeal has brought a number of dealers into the state, and once they’re here, Mostyn said, they take advantage of the ready access to guns compared to Massachusetts or New York.

“There are no state regulations on the possession of firearms here,” Mostyn said, noting Vermont’s tradition of hunting and shooting sports. “A lot of Vermonters enjoy the sport of having firearms, and these folks are coming up here and exploiting that. They’re taking advantage of the system that’s up here.”

"A lot of Vermonters enjoy the sport of having firearms, and these folks are coming up here and exploiting that. They're taking advantage of the system that's up here." - Jim Mostyn

There may be no difference in the sticker price of a gun at the store from state to state, but out of state criminals will pay for the convenience of skirting their states’ gun laws.

“These guns get a higher value in those states because they’re harder to come by,” Mostyn said. “They’re easily accessible here, whereas states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, it’s more difficult.”

As a result, Vermont becomes a convenient place for people with spare cash to get guns, he said.  

Firearms and ammunition fill the shelves in an evidence locker at the ATF field office in Burlington. A flourishing drug market in Vermont has brought a number of dealers into the state, and once they’re here, says Jim Mostyn, they take advantage of the ready access to guns.
Credit Jim Mostyn / ATF

“It’s not that guns are cheaper in Vermont, it’s just that some of these places where the restrictions are, people are willing to pay more to circumvent the process,” Mostyn said.

Mostyn said he wasn’t sure if legislation would have any effect on the problem. But Coffin said tougher sentences for straw purchasers, background check requirements for private gun sales and increased ATF staffing could slow the trade.

Trouble Down The Road

While the drugs that flow into Vermont along major highways are wreaking havoc for law enforcement and social services in the state, the guns going south pose a different threat to the communities where they end up.  

Boston-area real estate developer John Rosenthal is chairman of a non-profit gun control advocacy group called Stop Handgun Violence. He’s raised awareness of gun issues by using the nation’s largest billboard – a massive 252-foot sign overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston – to keep track of the number of children killed by guns. Rosenthal says other states with no gun laws contribute to gun violence in his home state.

"Massachusetts is the gun industry's worst nightmare. Gun laws work. Vermont is part of the problem." - John Rosenthal, chairman, Stop Handgun Violence

“There is a long history of several states, primarily Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and now Florida, South Carolina and Georgia as crime gun source states for guns traced to crime in Massachusetts,” he said.

Rosenthal, who says he is a lifelong gun owner, said that Massachusetts’ strict gun laws have contributed to keeping the state’s gun deaths among the lowest in the nation, but Vermont isn’t helping.

 “Massachusetts is the gun industry’s worst nightmare,” he said. “Gun laws work. Vermont is part of the problem.”