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

WASHINGTON - Two men met in a Portland hospital parking lot last spring and, after a brief conversation, traded $325 for a 9 mm handgun. One month later, the gun turned up near the scene of a shootout with police in New York City.

In 2010, another handgun was used in two murders in Portland. When police tried to trace its history, the trail dead-ended with an undocumented private sale at a Maine gun show.

In yet another case, a Boston man received 17 years behind bars in 2009 for running an interstate circuit to supply his fellow gang members with guns purchased from sellers advertising in Uncle Henry's, a popular Maine classified circular.

These separate incidents share a common thread: Before they ended up in the "wrong hands," the guns were sold in Maine's thriving and largely unsupervised private gun marketplace, where there are no background checks, no waiting periods and little paperwork.

Gun control advocates and law enforcement officials have long argued that Maine and other states with unregulated private gun sales are an easy source of weapons for criminals or mentally unstable people who couldn't get a gun from a licensed dealer. And they say federal gun traces support their claims.

"(The majority) of our crime guns come from other states and very often from states that have more lax gun laws than Massachusetts," said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney David Conley, whose jurisdiction includes Boston. "A state with strict or reasonable gun laws is still subject to crimes committed with guns from states with weaker laws."

After December's shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, pressure is growing both in Maine and nationally to require background checks on all gun sales -- whether they take place at an L.L. Bean counter or from the trunk of a car.

But many members of Congress -- including most of Maine's delegation -- have voiced skepticism about the practicality and feasibility of a universal system. And gun owners' rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, are gearing up for a fight.

"Let's be honest: background checks will never be 'universal,' because criminals will never submit to them," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told a congressional committee in January.

'GET THEM WHILE YOU STILL CAN'

Guns are a part of the cultural fabric of Maine, particularly in rural areas, where blaze orange is always in style come fall, and talk of "the lottery" usually means moose, not Powerball.

There are no statistics for annual firearms sales in Maine, because neither private buyers nor licensed dealers are required to report them. But dealers must request background checks, and FBI figures show that the number of checks sought in Maine through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, rose from 56,561 in 2008 to 91,834 in 2012 -- a 62 percent increase in four years.

One of the most popular venues for private gun sales in Maine appears to be Uncle Henry's, a weekly classified advertising circular published in print and online.

Its pages contain hundreds of ads selling all things firearms-related: ammunition clips, pistol grips, scopes, holsters and, of course, guns of almost any size, caliber or appearance. Two items in the sights of gun control advocates -- large-capacity ammunition magazines and AR-15 assault rifles -- were popular in several recent issues and online.

"Get them while you still can," urged one ad for 30-round ammunition clips for AR-15 and M-16 rifles. "Obamah (sic) will do whatever he can to stop manufacture of these items as soon as he can."

Kevin Webb, the publisher of Augusta-based Uncle Henry's, declined to comment Friday about the issue of background checks on private sales, saying that is a policy issue for lawmakers to settle. Uncle Henry's will follow whatever law is on the books, he said.

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