Why Hillary Clinton's Vermont Statistics In The Gun Violence Debate Are Misleading

Apr 13, 2016

Vermont's gun laws have emerged as a hotly-debated issue ahead of next week's Democratic presidential primary in New York State — and the leading candidate has selectively used statistics to help frame the debate. 

At a gun control forum in Port Washington, New York earlier this week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton linked Vermont's less restrictive gun laws with gun violence in New York State. And she surprised a number of people when she made this claim.

“The state that has the highest per-capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York [is] Vermont,” Clinton said.

Clinton dismissed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statements that a rural state like Vermont doesn't need the type of strict gun control laws that many urban areas do.

"This is not, 'Oh, you, know I live in a rural state we don't have any of these problems.' This is, you know what? It's easy to cross borders. Criminals, domestic abusers, traffickers, people who are dangerously mentally ill, they cross borders too,” Clinton said.

According to a 2014 report from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, there were almost 4,600 guns used in violent crimes in New York that can be traced. Of this group, 30 percent came from New York.

Guns bought in several Southern states accounted for the largest out-of-state number. For instance, 395 came from Virginia and 386 were originally from Georgia.

Fifty-five guns were purchased in Vermont – just over 1.5 percent of the total. However, on a per-capita basis, because of its small population, Vermont is the number-one state.

John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, has worked closely with New York officials on gun violence issues.

"In Vermont, you could be talking about one unlicensed gun dealer providing most of those weapons. So the number of people who live in Vermont is completely irrelevant to the question." - John Roman, Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute

He says using the per-capita statistic sometimes makes sense, but this case is not one of them.

“We can compare what happens in Rochester and Poughkeepsie to what happens in New York City and Burlington, right? And make a fair assessment about where we need to deploy resources to solve those problems? In this situation it actually makes no sense whatsoever to me,” Roman said on Vermont Edition Wednesday.

And Roman says the per-capita statistic is not particularly useful to law enforcement officials.

“What you care about is where those guns are coming from and how many of those places are there that law enforcement needs to investigate,” Roman says. “In Vermont, you could be talking about one unlicensed gun dealer providing most of those weapons. So the number of people who live in Vermont is completely irrelevant to the question."

Gov. Peter Shumlin has defended Vermont's gun laws and he's a strong supporter of Secretary Clinton. He says he has no interest in being drawn into this debate.

“I'm going to let Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders work this one out,” Shumlin says. “I'm not going to tell Secretary Clinton or Senator Sanders how to get elected the next president of the United States."

In Vermont, gun control has long been considered the third rail of state politics. But a VPR poll released in February showed that the overwhelming majority of Vermonters support background checks for all gun sales, and even favor waiting periods for firearms transactions. 

On Thursday night, Clinton and Sanders will meet in their final debate before next Tuesday's New York primary. And political observers say it's likely that the gun issue will come up again at this forum.