— Hillary Clinton, panel on gun violence, April 11, 2016
This Clinton campaign attack on Bernie Sanders’s gun record has been a week in the making.
A version of it surfaced in reports of a meeting Clinton held with New York Democratic leaders, ahead of the April 19 primary. Politico reported that on April 4 she privately told the leaders that Vermont shared blame for the guns being used in crimes in New York. Her critics responded quickly, noting Vermont is the source of a small number of crime guns found in New York. (Her campaign said it could not confirm her statement.)
Then, on April 5, her campaign manager Robby Mook made a similar but generalized point in a CNN interview: “I don’t think Senator Sanders has been sincere here in New York which is facing serious problems with guns being trafficked from Vermont and other states.” Mook listed Vermont as one of the states where guns tied to crime in New York originated, but did not directly blame Vermont.
Finally, on April 11, Clinton used a more refined version publicly — eliciting gasps from the audience. But this time, the words “per capita” appeared, signaling the campaign believed it had found the right data to support her argument.
So this is the anatomy of a talking point.
Clinton has been using gun control to cast a significant difference between herself and Bernie Sanders, repeatedly pointing out pro-gun votes that Sanders cast in Congress. (See The Fact Checker roundup of everything you need to know about Sanders’s record on guns.) Now, Clinton is drawing attention to the flow of guns into New York from Vermont. What are the underlying facts?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) tracks the movement of guns tied to crime through a process called “tracing.” ATF tracks the point where the gun was manufactured or imported, to the point of its first retail purchaser.
Tracing allows law enforcement to see how far a gun was transported from its point of first retail sale. They can use tracing data to find licensed and unlicensed sellers who may be trafficking guns, and to find potential suspects and witnesses in criminal investigations. Tracing can indicate how serious the illegal gun problem is in a community, the ATF says.
Clinton’s campaign pointed to a New York Times analysis of nine years of gun tracing data. New York and New Jersey have some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but more than two-third of crime guns had come from out of state.
Law enforcement agencies tie the movement of guns into New York and New Jersey to the “Iron Pipeline,” which is Interstate 95 and connector highways. The idea is that guns are being trafficked from southern states with less restrictive gun laws, generally via cars, and then are used in crime in northern states that have stricter gun laws. (Related: We have fact-checked whether states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest deaths, which found that despite Vermont’s relatively lax gun laws, it had the second lowest death rate from guns when suicides are excluded.)
There were 7,686 guns recovered and traced in New York in 2014, ATF data show. The source state was identified in 4,585 of the traces, and 30 percent (1,397) were from within the state.
In 2013 and 2014, the states where the most number of out-of-state crime guns originated were Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia. The state with the most number of guns per 100,000 people was, indeed, Vermont.
But 1 percent of crime guns whose sources were identified in 2014 originated from Vermont: 55 of 4,585.
Crime guns in New York from Vermont is a recent trend. From 2006 to 2012, Vermont was not listed as a top 15 state for crime guns in New York from Vermont, ATF data show.
The top 15 source states for firearms found in New York, by raw numbers and per capita for 2014 and 2013:
||Number of guns (2013)
||per 100,000 (2013)
||Number of guns (2014)
||per 100,000 (2014)
The Clinton campaign said that controlling for population is a “critically important number, as it shows just how dangerous Vermont’s laws are relative to other states. If Vermont had the population of California, it would source roughly 3,800 crime guns each year to New York — far more than the top 15 total source states for New York crime guns combined.”
Clinton’s answer was in response to Sanders’s claim about Vermont being a small, rural state with no gun laws, the campaign said. The campaign said it chose to look at the per capita rate because it shows that despite the small population in Vermont, the pro-gun laws and the state’s background check system are “so bad that more guns per people living there are ending up in crime scenes in New York.”
We have often warned readers to look for percentage of the population, rather than the raw numbers, to spot criminal justice trends. But this is an area where experts say raw numbers matter.
Using the number of people in the source state is a problematic denominator, because gun trafficking deals with the behavior of gun dealers and the type and enforcement of state laws, according to criminal justice researchers we interviewed. Crime guns tend to originate from a small number of bad actors, and trace data are used to focus enforcement efforts to find those bad actors in a certain state. ATF calculates gun trafficking data by raw figures, not per capita.
“It doesn’t matter how many people live there. The issue is, how many gun dealers are there that are contributing to violence in New York,” said John Roman, senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Roman, who has worked with New York officials over gun violence and gun laws, said concerns over guns trafficked from Vermont were not brought up in those discussions over many years.
“I literally have never heard of Vermont coming up in this conversation. Literally never,” Roman said. “These conversations are always about law enforcement in places like New York being worried about Southern states with easy access to weaponry.”
Candace McCoy, professor at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said per capita calculations are used to determine how likely a person in the population is to be threatened by a particular risk, such as the likelihood of a person being a victim of a violent crime.
“Here, the question is: if we want to cut off the supply line of guns into New York, what supply line is largest? That would not be Vermont,” McCoy said. For gun trafficking, it is “Iron Pipeline from the Southern states, garden hose from Vermont. It would be great to cut off both of them, but given the choice I would go with the pipeline.”
The Clinton campaign said it considers gun trafficking as a risk a community faces, and thus should be calculated per capita like a public health threat, similar to a disease or an epidemic.
The campaign pointed to reports of gun trafficking problems in Vermont. Vermont Public Radio interviewed the ATF agent in charge of Vermont, and reported the state is “a fertile market, but it’s also an easy place to pick up a weapon. … 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.” Other news coverage and reports by gun-control groups cited per capita rates, and noted other issues with crime that contribute to the flow of guns out of the state. For one, the heroin epidemic in Vermont has contributed to gun trafficking, according to In These Times.
We don’t dispute that there are guns tied to crime in New York that originated from Vermont. Every state had at least some dozen traced guns originating from it in 2014. But it’s important to keep these numbers in context.
In 2014, guns from 10 states comprised 56 percent of all traced guns, ATF data show. The top 10 source states, in order from highest to lowest, were: California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Arizona and Indiana.
Vermont ranked 49th behind Hawaii in raw figures among all source states in 2014, ATF data show. As a percentage of population, Vermont ranked 40th among all source states, at 31 guns per 100,000 people.
The Pinocchio Test
Vermont does provide the highest per capita number of guns tied to crimes in New York. This point resonated with audience members, who gasped when she told them this factoid. But as much as the Clinton campaign may want to blame Sanders or his home state for the guns in New York, this is a misleading data point.
The per capita calculation is skewed by Vermont’s small population (55 guns out of 626,562 people, or 8.78 guns per 100,000 people). When it comes to gun trafficking between states, the raw numbers indicate the actual volume of guns flowing out of a state, and the prevalence of dealers who may be selling guns that are tied to crime. If you take out the 55 Vermont-originated guns from all crime guns that came from outside of New York, the number of crime guns in 2014 would decrease to 2,556 from 2,611. That’s how much impact the flow of crime guns from Vermont has on the volume of crime guns in New York.
The number of crime guns in New York from Vermont is so small that it could even be attributed to one or two bad actors. Using the per capita measure of trafficked guns originating from Vermont is as pointless as counting guns trafficked per 100,000 head of cattle.
We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios. Clinton has carefully crafted her talking point to find the particular government data that support her point, which gives a wildly different view than how trafficking flows are tracked. We do not find the per capita measure as a fair assessment of gun flows from Vermont into New York. The difference between this point using per capita calculation and the raw number (1 percent of crime guns with source states identified in 2014 came from Vermont) is so stark that it creates a significantly misleading impression to the public. Those factors tip to Three Pinocchios.
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