The Vermont-New York Heroin-and-Guns Carousel That Can Make Dealers a 1,400% Profit

Shooting up in Vermont, shooting up New York.

Terry J. Allen

The scarcity of guns for purchase in New York and the lack of heroin in Vermont allows dealers to make a significant profit off of the lucrative gun-heroin carousel. (Rachel K. Dooley / Shutterstock)

Pssst. Want an unreg­is­tered semi-auto­mat­ic hand­gun, some hero­in and a way to make a 1,400 per­cent profit?

Gun-drug runners are carving a deep, two-way trench down the Northeast, leaving a toxic trail of violence, misery and addiction.

First, the gun. In Ver­mont, you can legal­ly buy it through a pri­vate” sale at a gun show, yard sale, online or from a deal­er. Doesn’t mat­ter if you’re a con­vict­ed mur­der­er with a his­to­ry of men­tal ill­ness and a restrain­ing order for domes­tic abuse. Any­one 16 or old­er with $600 can, for exam­ple, go to Arm​slist​.com and arrange with a pri­vate par­ty” in Arling­ton, Vt., to pick up a Zas­ta­va M92 PV 7.6239 cal. semi auto pis­tol that has a 10 inch bar­rel, comes with 2 each 30 round clips.” The Ser­bian assault weapon is, the ad notes, the very cool … pis­tol ver­sion of the AK-47.”

Then, if you are will­ing to break the law, you can dri­ve the weapon to New York, where semi-auto­mat­ic hand­guns are banned, and sell it for triple the Ver­mont price. You can invest the $1,800 in hero­in. Back in Ver­mont, where hero­in is in rel­a­tive­ly short sup­ply, you can resell it for five times the New York cost and gar­ner $9,000 — a quick 1,400 per­cent profit.

Just the facts

Ver­mont is a gun lover’s free-mar­ket par­adise. And anti-gun con­trol advo­cates argue that because it has a gold­en tri­an­gle of virtues — loose gun laws, high gun own­er­ship and a low crime rate — the famous­ly safe, lib­er­al state is proof that gun reg­u­la­tions are large­ly irrel­e­vant to crime rates.

Nation­al Review writer Charles C. W. Cooke glee­ful­ly described Ver­mont as hav­ing no gun laws at all,” and con­clud­ed that the state does dam­age to the idea that there is an iron­clad link between the avail­abil­i­ty of firearms and crime.”

And facts back him up.

FACT NO.1: Ver­mont has some of the loos­est gun laws in the coun­try. You can legal­ly buy 50-cal­iber sniper rifles with scopes, sawed-off shot­guns, semi­au­to­mat­ic pis­tols that can kill a moose, and armor-pierc­ing bul­lets. No back­ground check, no wait­ing peri­od or lim­it on how many guns you can buy or own. You can use a false name and need no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion or reg­is­tra­tion. The mag­a­zine size is not restrict­ed. And you can dis­play the new gun on your hip or stuff it in your under­pants for all the state cares. All legal. And as long as you don’t know” the firearms will be used for crim­i­nal pur­pos­es, you can imme­di­ate­ly resell the guns to a 21-year-old with racist insignias on his jack­et, two prison escapees from upstate New York, a whacked-out drug deal­er, a cer­ti­fied para­noid with a tin­foil hat, or a drunk 16-year-old (that’s the age to own a hand­gun with­out parental con­sent; there’s no age restric­tion on pos­sess­ing a rifle or shotgun).

FACT NO.2: Ver­mont has con­sis­tent­ly the first-or sec­ond-low­est per capi­ta mur­der rate in the coun­try. The state had only eight mur­ders in 2012, only two of which relat­ed to firearms.

And so we can absolute­ly say,” Cooke con­cludes, a) an abun­dance of firearms and a set of loose reg­u­la­tions do not inevitably lead to more crime, and b) that the wide­spread sug­ges­tion that they do is dishonest.”

Hmmm, not exact­ly. See­ing the clear links between guns, vio­lence and crime requires a more com­plex view of pub­lic safe­ty and a few more facts.

The big­ger picture

FACT NO.3: We have seen that, like maple syrup, firearms cross state lines. One makes your pan­cakes deli­cious, the oth­er fuels crime and mur­der. Firearm traf­fick­ers trav­el to Ver­mont for the pur­chase of firearms from unli­censed sources and then trav­el back to more restric­tive states,” Mass­a­chu­setts Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobac­co, Firearms and Explo­sives (ATF) Spe­cial Agent Christo­pher J. Arone tells In These Times. Ver­mont exports more guns per capi­ta than any oth­er New Eng­land state and ranks 16th nation­wide. Hun­dreds of crime-linked guns orig­i­nal­ly pur­chased there have been recov­ered by out-of-state law enforcement.

FACT NO.4: Vermont’s export of guns is neat­ly paired with its imports of hero­in. ATF offices in Ver­mont and Spring­field, Mass., have con­sis­tent­ly seen guns orig­i­nat­ing in Ver­mont used as cur­ren­cy in the inter­state drug trade,” Mass­a­chu­setts ATF Agent Deb­o­ra Seifert told the Boston Globe in April 2014.

It’s not so much just firearms traf­fick­ing to make a prof­it [off the guns them­selves],” Ver­mont ATF Agent Jim Mostyn told Ver­mont Pub­lic Radio in 2014. What we’re see­ing is the nar­cotics for the guns. Most of the firearms traf­fick­ing, if not all, has a nexus to narcotics.”

Which leads to:

FACT NO.5: Ver­mont is in the midst of a hero­in epi­dem­ic. With more than $2 mil­lion in hero­in and oth­er opi­ates flood­ing in every week, the state has the country’s sec­ond high­est per capi­ta use of illic­it drugs, exclud­ing mar­i­jua­na. Hero­in-relat­ed deaths in Ver­mont near­ly dou­bled between 2012 and 2013 and there was a 770 per­cent rise in the num­ber of peo­ple treat­ed for addic­tion between 2000 and 2014.

Turns out, cap­i­tal­ism hasn’t changed all that much in 300 years. The inter­state gun-drug mer­ry-go-round bears more than a pass­ing resem­blance to the British East India Company’s lucra­tive 18th-cen­tu­ry trade route: Pur­chase opi­um in India, trade it in Chi­na for tea, sell the tea in Eng­land, and use the prof­its to buy more opium.

The rest of the story

Today’s gun indus­try earns bil­lions of dol­lars a year from con­sumer sales and then fun­nels tens of mil­lions into the cof­fers of the NRA, which lob­bies hard against gun con­trol. Although fed­er­al­ly licensed gun shops across the coun­try impose some hard-won stan­dards (gov­ern­ment-issued pho­to IDs, lim­its on fire­pow­er, back­ground checks, etc.), con­sumers with a crim­i­nal record or oth­er dis­qual­i­fiers can ille­gal­ly skirt these imped­i­ments by using a straw buy­er — a proxy with a clean record. Or, like Dylann Roof, who is accused of mur­der­ing nine peo­ple in a black South Car­oli­na church, they can slip through a flawed bureau­cra­cy. Hav­ing admit­ted drug pos­ses­sion, Roof should have failed his back­ground check and been barred from legal­ly buy­ing the gun used in the attack.

Or like the myr­i­ad gun buy­ers want­i­ng to avoid fed­er­al­ly licensed shops, they can trav­el from states like New York or Mass­a­chu­setts (with stricter-than-fed­er­al regs) to those where restric­tions are vir­tu­al­ly nonex­is­tent. When deal­ing with firearms traf­fick­ing, it’s source’ ver­sus mar­ket’ states,” says ATF Agent Arone. The source areas and their non-restric­tive firearm laws make the pur­chas­ing of firearms eas­i­er ver­sus more restric­tive states. It’s as sim­ple as that.”

So, where bet­ter to shop than Ver­mont? The only prob­lem is that the laid-back pop­u­lace and pleas­ant land­scape seem to lull some traf­fick­ers into such dizzy­ing stu­pid­i­ty that they speed in cars cop-bait­ed with bust­ed tail­lights. Like the Brook­lynites clocked at 109 miles per hour on Inter­state 91 at 12:30 a.m. while haul­ing cocaine, hero­in and 1,200 glas­sine bags. Or the genius with the cracked wind­shield who stashed 740 one-dose bags of hero­in in a deflat­ed spare tire that didn’t fit his car.

Dar­win­ian culling aside, gun-drug run­ners are carv­ing a deep, two-way trench down the North­east — and, like the East India Com­pa­ny before them, leav­ing a tox­ic trail of vio­lence, mis­ery and addiction.

The lit­er­al trail is Inter­state 89 and Inter­state 91, which brack­et the length of Ver­mont. They car­ry milk and cheese from organ­ic farms to trendy city shops, Heady Top­per beer to hip­sters, tourists to scenes of pas­toral beau­ty, and drug and gun run­ners high on dreams of big profits.

I‑91, which con­nects to key sta­tions in the ille­gal cir­cuit — New York City and the hard­scrab­ble Mass­a­chu­setts towns of Spring­field and Holyoke — has been dubbed the Iron Pipeline. It joins up with Vermont’s oth­er main north­south route, I‑89, which pass­es through Barre, the for­mer gran­ite cap­i­tal of the world” that was once famous for union strug­gles and col­or­ful in-fight­ing between the anar­chists and social­ists who worked its exten­sive stone quar­ries and carv­ing sheds. Today, Barre, like much of Ver­mont, strug­gles with drug abuse rates that owe much to the inter­state gun-drug circle.

The NRA and the Nation­al Reviews sim­plis­tic argu­ments notwith­stand­ing, Ver­mont is actu­al­ly an exam­ple of the com­plex and exten­sive web of social costs that flow from the bar­rel of unreg­u­lat­ed guns. In an aver­age year, rough­ly 100,000 Amer­i­cans are killed or wound­ed with firearms; an uncount­able num­ber are destroyed by the trade in ille­gal drugs linked to guns.

Turns out guns do kill peo­ple, espe­cial­ly when joined in lethal syn­er­gy with the lures of hero­in and profit.

Ter­ry J. Allen is a vet­er­an inves­tiga­tive reporter/​editor who has cov­ered local and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and health and sci­ence issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Sci­en­tist . She has been an edi­tor at Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her por­traits of peo­ple sit­ting in some of the 1900 cars lined up out­side a New­port, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Ter­ry can be con­tact­ed at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue