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Clinton’s Vermont Gun Stat

Hillary Clinton claimed that Vermont was the source of the “highest per capita” number of guns that come from out of state and were “used in crimes and violence and killings in New York.” That statistic is true for all guns that were successfully traced in New York in 2014 (not all may have been used in a crime). But in terms of raw numbers, Vermont ranked 13th among the outside states with guns recovered in New York.

As we are fond of saying, one statistic rarely tells the entire story, and that’s certainly the case here. Clinton uses the measurement that best backs up her point — that weak gun control laws in Vermont, the home state of her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, are a problem. But her claim could give some the misleading impression that Vermont is a major source of guns used in crimes in New York. It’s not.

In raw numbers, 55 guns out of the 4,585 successfully traced in 2014 in New York came from Vermont. That’s 1.2 percent of the guns recovered and traced. That’s a small amount. Even if we take out the guns that were traced to New York, and look only at the out-of-state guns (3,188 total), Vermont’s guns make up 1.7 percent of traced guns.

When put in per-capita terms, as Clinton, does, Vermont’s 55 guns take on greater significance, because Vermont is such a small state. Vermont’s population of 626,767 in 2014 ranked 49th among the 50 states, according to Census Bureau figures. Per capita, Vermont does have the highest number, as she said.

David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, who has written about firearms and violence, told us there isn’t one correct way of looking at these figures. “You have to do per capita because otherwise, it’s only going to be the big states” at the top of the list, Hemenway said. “Per capita makes a lot of sense. The problem is, like all measures, nothing’s perfect.”

Clinton made the claim during a panel discussion on gun violence on April 11 in Port Washington, New York. She criticized Sanders, her opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, for describing his state of Vermont as a small, rural state without gun laws, or problems with guns (at the 7:45 mark).

Clinton, April 11: When challenged on his gun stances, [Sanders] frequently says, “Well, you know, I represent Vermont. It’s a small, rural state. We have no gun laws.” Here’s what I want you to know. Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state. And the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont. So 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. And sometimes they do it to get the guns they use.

(Clinton also repeated a false claim about the FBI needing “24 hours” more to discover that the shooter at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 “should have been prohibited from buying that gun.” One more day wouldn’t have made a difference, as we wrote in February.)

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives publishes firearms trace data that it compiles on behalf of other law enforcement agencies. ATF notes in its state report on New York for 2014 that law enforcement can request a trace for any reason and that the data have limitations. “Not all firearms used in crime are traces and not all firearms traces are used in crime,” the ATF says in the report, cautioning that the data “should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals.”

In other words, we don’t know whether all 55 guns traced to Vermont were used in “crimes and violence and killings,” as Clinton said. Further limiting the data is the fact that law enforcement in New York requested tracing of thousands more firearms in 2014 than ATF was able to successfully identify: A total of 7,686 firearms were recovered and traced, but the source state was identified in only 4,585. Guns are normally traced to the first retail sale, ATF says.

But this imperfect set of data is what we have on out-of-state gun trafficking.

ATF’s numbers show the top 15 sources for those 4,585 guns, with 30.5 percent of them (1,397) coming from New York. The out-of-state sources were, in order: Virginia (395 guns), Georgia (386), Pennsylvania (371), Florida (292), North Carolina (279), South Carolina (256), Ohio (152), Texas (103), Alabama (91), West Virginia (66), Connecticut (59), Tennessee (57), Vermont (55) and California (49).

Our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post wrote about Clinton’s claim and compiled the per-capita figures for each state: Vermont has the highest rate per 100,000 people at 8.78. The next closest states, not counting New York, are South Carolina (5.3), Virginia (4.74) and Georgia (3.82).

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told us in an email that in raw numbers “Vermont is not a major contributor to NY’s crime guns.” But, on the other hand, “the very high per capita rate of guns exported from VT to NY criminals indicates that VT’s gun laws do not work well for preventing the diversion of guns to criminals. This is consistent with research that we’ve conducted and the findings of other researchers as well.”

Vermont earned an “F” rating in terms of its gun control laws in 2013 from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign. The state doesn’t require background checks for all gun purchases, nor does it require handgun licenses.

The Clinton campaign told us the statistic is accurate and shows that weak gun laws in Vermont have an impact on states with tighter gun control regulations, like New York. The campaign pointed to a Sanders statement in July 2015: “In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they’re used for kids in gangs killing other kids or people shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people.” Clearly, guns are used for violence in Vermont, too, but Vermont’s impact on New York in terms of gun trafficking is still small compared with other, larger states.

In November 2015, the New York Times wrote about the problem of out-of-state guns being trafficked into New York and New Jersey, states with stricter gun laws than the states from which many of the guns came. The Times article didn’t point to Vermont as part of the problem, but rather pinpointed states from which a larger number of guns have been traced. “Many were brought in via the so-called Iron Pipeline, made up of Interstate 95 and its tributary highways, from Southern states with weaker gun laws, like Virginia, Georgia and Florida,” the Times wrote.

In July 2013, then New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, along with the city’s police commissioner and chief policy advisor, released data showing that 90 percent of traceable guns used in crimes in New York City in 2011 came from outside the state. Then Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly also cited the problem with guns coming from the South’s “iron pipeline.” The city’s list of top 10 source states (by raw numbers of guns) was led by Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Vermont didn’t figure into that list, nor did the city provide per-capita figures.

ATF doesn’t calculate the per-capita figures, either, and the Washington Post‘s article on Clinton’s claim quoted experts saying the raw numbers are more important in this case. John Roman, senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who has worked with officials in New York on gun issues, told the Post that gun trafficking from Vermont was never a topic of discussion. “These conversations are always about law enforcement in places like New York being worried about Southern states with easy access to weaponry,” he said.

A September 2010 “Trace the Guns” report by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a group co-founded in 2006 by Bloomberg) does include both raw numbers and per-capita rates for gun trafficking by state. That report said that “raw numbers do not tell the whole story,” and that controlling for population would “more precisely identify the states that are disproportionately large suppliers of interstate crime guns.”

That report, based on 2009 ATF trace data, ranks Vermont 16th in terms of its “export rate,” or the number of guns recovered and traced in other states per 100,000 people in the state’s population. Southern states still filled the top 10 in export rates: Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alaska, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Nevada, and Georgia.

We spoke with Ted Alcorn, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, an umbrella group for Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other groups pushing for stricter gun control laws. He said both ways of looking at this issue — that Vermont is a relatively small source in raw numbers and a high source per capita — are appropriate and important for New Yorkers and from a public policy perspective.

By ignoring the relative number, the data on guns from small states would never matter, he said. And he “wouldn’t downplay the importance” of 55 guns coming from Vermont, saying that’s one gun per week.

Alcorn said “ideally we would want to control for [the] number of guns or number of gun-owning households” rather than only population. “But that data is not available.”

Clinton cites one statistic to make her point about Vermont’s loose gun control laws — and on a per-capita basis, Vermont guns were recovered and traced in New York at a higher rate than guns from other outside states. But on a raw-number basis, the 55 guns traced to Vermont make up a small percentage — less than 2 percent — of the guns recovered and traced in the state.