The Ways of the Gun

Boston’s best hope of breaking its cycle of gun violence is stopping the flow of illegal firearms. But local law enforcement is finding itself up against the black market’s ruthless logic of supply and demand. WEB EXCLUSIVE: Where the guns are coming from.

The two suspects broke for the alley the moment Boston police officer Jamie Sheehan and his partners turned around their unmarked cruiser. Sprinting down Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury through a light rain, the shorter of the two men grabbed the waistband of his blue hoodie—a sure sign he was carrying a weapon underneath. Sheehan and one of his fellow patrolmen jumped out of the car and gave chase.

Sheehan slowed only slightly as he rounded the corner of a brick building at the entrance of the alleyway, knowing he might run into the muzzle of a gun. Once on the other side, he saw the shorter man toss something from his hand. A metallic clang echoed off the chainlink fence to Sheehan’s right. By the time Sheehan caught up with the suspects through the alley and onto Crawford Street, one of his partners had already ordered them to the ground.

A few minutes later, the officers returned to the yard behind the fence. There, on the muddy ground, they found what they’d been looking for: a shiny Hi-Point 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Sheehan had seen more than 100 such guns, favored by gang members because they’re cheap and easy to hide. This particular one had had its serial number filed off, a clue it had been purchased illegally. Sure enough, the gun was eventually traced back to an all-too-familiar name: Mack Fludd.

That Hi-Point recovered in October became the sixth illegal gun linked to Fludd, an ex-gang leader who built a second career as a high-volume gunrunner. It was just one of 25 he is known to have purchased out of state and resold in Boston; the other 19 are presumably still in circulation, available for acts of violence. Those 19, in turn, are only a small part of the flood of illegal guns that has flowed into Boston in the last few years. Exactly how many firearms are on the city’s streets is unknown, but the number appears to be growing. Last year, police recovered 893 illegal guns, up more than 100 from the year before. In a 2004 Harvard School of Public Health survey of Boston public high school students, half of the boys said it would be very or fairly easy to get a gun.

Faced with a homicide rate at a 10-year high, the Boston Police Department has made shutting down the influx of firepower a priority. In that effort, however, the department is hamstrung by legislation that makes it difficult to prosecute people found with illegal guns—or even to track where the guns are coming from. Compounding those difficulties is a steady appetite for firearms, which for some urban teens have become accessories as coveted as iPods. The gun problem may prove one for which the only law that really matters is that of supply and demand—and, right now, that law is favoring the bad guys.

“When I was 14, I didn’t know where to get a gun,” says Chris Byner, head of the city’s Streetworker Program, who grew up in a housing project in Roxbury. “Now I’m seeing more kids feeling the need to carry a gun, for protection—or just to be cool. You have kids working summer jobs just to save up the money” for a gun.

IN MASSACHUSETTS, the bar for owning a gun is higher than in any other state. Even in sales between private parties, prospective purchasers need a firearms license requiring a background check. Dealers, meanwhile, are required to have a dedicated storefront—you can’t buy a gun in someone’s kitchen, as you can elsewhere. But those regulations have only made the market for illegal guns more lucrative. Last year only about a third of the recovered firearms successfully traced by law enforcement were originally sold in Massachusetts. The rest came from northern New England and as far away as Florida. Less stringent gun laws in other states make it easy to buy guns and move them back to Boston, where they can be sold at a steep markup. Prices for contraband weapons range from $300 for a 9mm or a .380, to $600 or $800 for a more powerful revolver, to $1,000 for a brand-new assault rifle. A gun picked up for only $200 in New Hampshire or South Carolina can yield a tidy profit when resold in Boston.

With freshly smuggled guns costing so much, some buyers have turned to cheaper alternatives. Unlike in the ’90s, when shooters were careful to ditch a gun after a crime, today’s gang members are brazen about using “dirty” guns, which they can often buy at a bargain. “Kids used to be anxious about guns with lives on them. Now they don’t care so much,” says Paul Joyce, who heads the Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Task Force. One .22-caliber handgun, he says, was used in seven shootings in a single month. That weapon was likely a so-called “community gun” or “block gun,” kept hidden away and checked out on an as-needed basis, like an underworld Zipcar. Kids pool their money to buy a block gun to make sure they’ll have a firearm handy should a dispute arise—but won’t be caught with it if they’re searched while hanging out on the street corner. “If police catch you with drugs, but the gun is over there, then they don’t find it on you,” says Byner. “Kids know the rules.”

GUNRUNNERS usually don’t belong to the gangs they supply, preferring instead to skulk around the perimeter of their customer groups. Sometimes they are ex-gang members who don’t want to risk the higher rate of arrest for street-level drug-pushing. For these salesmen, profits are only part of the motivation. “People say, ‘He’s not just a drug dealer, he can get guns,’” says Boston Police detective Eric Bulman. “There is a feeling of power.”

That certainly was the case with Fludd, once one of Boston’s most notorious gang leaders. As a teenager, “Little Mack” gathered a group of fellow teens behind a school a few blocks from Humboldt Avenue and founded the Intervale Posse, which would come to have two trademarks: Adidas sneakers and brutality. The Intervale Posse was linked to six homicides and countless shootings; Fludd himself was twice convicted of armed assault and put away for nine years in all. By the time he was released in 1998, the gang had been dismantled by the crackdown on crime celebrated as the Boston Miracle, and Fludd needed a new line of work. He quickly found one in the illegal gun trade.

The trail that led investigators to Fludd began with another gun, a Hi-Point .380 recovered from the apartment of a drug dealer on Normandy Street, half a block from Fludd’s old Intervale stomping grounds. As with the 9mm, the gun’s serial number had been filed down. But the police were able to reconstruct it, allowing them to trace the weapon.

Not that the discovery made the rest of the investigation easy. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents and police departments can’t simply check a central database to track firearms. All requests have to be sent to a national tracing center that contacts a gun’s manufacturer to find out where it was sold, a process that can take months. “If I want to do an investigation on your car, I can type in your VIN number and it’s going to give me everything I want to know,” says Bulman. “I can’t do that with a gun.”

Federal law prohibits licensed dealers from selling to out-of-state customers and requires them to keep records of sales. But guns frequently change hands between private parties without creating a paper trail, and gunrunners often use straw purchasers to acquire their inventories. Confronted by those circumstances, an investigator must rely on shoe leather. “It’s not sitting at a computer terminal. This is very time-consuming,” says Thomas D’Ambrosio, supervisor of a pioneering ATF unit embedded in Boston Police headquarters. “If a dealer is out of business, there are just boxes and boxes of records.”

In the case of the .380 found on Normandy Street, the national tracing center turned up a match with Dorothy Fludd, who bought the gun from a pharmacy called Vincent Drugs in Hampton, South Carolina. While preparing to interview her, an ATF agent typed her last name into a police database. The search returned not only Dorothy, but also her brother, Mack.

Poring through the pharmacy’s gun-sales records, agents found other customers listing the same post office box as Dorothy, including two of Fludd’s other siblings; even his mother, Ella Mae Johnson, had made a few purchases, according to court testimony. When questioned, Johnson confessed that her son had convinced her to go to the pharmacy and buy guns for him while he sat outside in the car. A pattern began to emerge. Several times a year, Mack drove down to South Carolina and checked into a nearby hotel, the Palmetto Inn. Then he drove to Vincent Drugs with one or more of his straw purchasers, handed them money, and waited for them to return with their acquisitions.

Once Fludd returned to Boston, unloading his cache was apparently as simple as returning to his former neighborhood and putting out word that he had guns to sell. Of the six guns so far recovered from his haul, four were found within blocks of Intervale Street, where festering turf wars seem to have created an eager clientele. Rather than chapters of larger national criminal networks—the kind found in other cities—the gangs that menace Roxbury and Dorchester are small, independent groups with ever shifting alliances. Kids can become targets simply because of which street they grew up on.

“When my brother got in an altercation, he was like, ‘What comes around goes around,’” says Shannan, a 24-year-old local student who declined to give her last name. “He knew who it was, and it would be taken care of. And he took care of it.”

FLUDD IS FAR from the only trafficker to use the “iron pipeline,” as prosecutors sometimes call the I-95 corridor. In the early 90s, the neighborhood of Uphams Corner was awash in guns traced to a man attending college in Mississippi; during a buyback program, young people showed up at the door of the local police precinct with brown bags full of those weapons. In 2004, Boston resident Jamal Prather pleaded guilty to trafficking nine guns that had been bought in Georgia by two cousins. In January, a pair of local women drove to Alabama to buy guns from a pawn shop; police were clued in to their adventure by a call to an anonymous tip line.

“Our message for criminals is clear,” Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole said at a news conference called to announce the bust, standing behind a table on which the guns were laid out on a sheet of butcher paper. “We’re not waiting for you to unload your guns here on the streets of Boston.” But even as police make gains in intercepting illegal guns from southern states, enterprising gunrunners are adapting their business plans. According to ATF records obtained exclusively by Boston magazine, in the past year, New Hampshire and Maine have become the top two sources for Massachusetts-bound illegal guns, each accounting for about 7 percent of the total.

Those two northern neighbors require a permit for carrying a concealed firearm, but not for buying one (Vermont doesn’t require a license for either), and their private sellers need only to ask customers to produce a local ID. It was that loophole that Lynn resident Michael Fowler allegedly drove his pickup through. According to a complaint filed in federal court, Fowler got a fake Maine driver’s license, then searched for potential purchases in Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide, a circular advertising everything from livestock to synthetic stock rifles.

“He was just picking up Uncle Henry’s and basically filling orders,” says Cathie Whittenburg, executive director of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. According to court records, police have traced eight handguns back to Fowler, who is slated to stand trial next month, including several powerful .40- and .45-caliber revolvers—and that’s just a fraction of the 28 he is charged with trafficking.

“My sources have told me no one was watching New Hampshire until I opened my big mouth,” says Bruce Wall, pastor of Dorchester’s Global Ministries. “The feds were watching the 95 corridor [south of Boston], so kids say why take that risk?” Hanging in Wall’s Codman Square church is a list of kids killed on the streets of Boston in the past 21 years, a numbing register of more than 300 names, each accompanied by an age and cause of death. Recently he added another anti-gun message, giant letters taped to windows on the front of the building spelling out WE DO NOT NEED ILLEGAL GUNS.

Wall has met with the head of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police about the issue, sparking an angry denunciation
from the New Hampshire U.S. Attorney. He makes no apologies. One former drug dealer, Wall says, told him he used to head north four times a month, each time returning with up to a dozen guns. A typical case, he says, involves young men from Boston driving to New Hampshire or Maine and getting women to buy guns with their local IDs. “These guys are joining up with women with no self-esteem, wining and dining these ladies, and getting them to buy 9, 10, 11 guns for them.”

Another easy mark is the dozens of gun shows held annually in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. While the majority of sellers at those events are licensed dealers—and therefore required to run background checks—some allow private sellers to set up tables next to theirs. The ATF is all but forbidden by a directive from the national office to monitor the shows, opening them up to abuses. “Flea markets and gun shows are places we don’t go,” says Dan Kumor of the ATF’s Boston office, “unless we know there are criminal actions taking place.” At a gun show in Vermont that I visit with John Rosenthal, founder and president of Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence, the Barre Auditorium takes on the vibe of a church potluck. Except instead of warmed-over spaghetti, the tables are loaded with pistols, rifles, and semiautomatic machine guns. Outside in the parking lot, I watch three different men pull guns out of their trucks and show them to potential buyers—all entirely legal transactions not requiring any paperwork.

Among many residents of northern New England, the right to bear arms is sacred, and they resent interference from southern neighbors who blame them for contributing to urban crime. “If I want to give a gun to a neighbor or a hunting buddy, I’m not going to go to a police station to run him through a criminal background check,” Jack Anderson, a resident of Newbury, Vermont and a self-described “refugee” from New York City, says as he examines guns at the Barre show. The answer to Boston’s gun problem, he argues, is better law enforcement: “What they need to do is put criminals behind bars.”

IF ONLY IT were that simple. Last August, two months before Officer Sheehan recovered the Hi-Point 9mm near Humboldt Avenue, Fludd was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison. But Fludd is an exception when it comes to gun criminals, who are notoriously difficult to bring to trial. A study by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation found fewer than 200 federal cases brought nationwide for gun trafficking between 2000 and 2002, despite the recovery of 100,000 guns that showed signs of having crossed state lines. Massachusetts’ performance was especially lackluster. The organization rated the state 47th in per capita federal gun prosecutions.

U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan defends his record, noting that he has nearly doubled gun-related prosecutions, from 32 in 2001 to 63 last year. In Massachusetts, Sullivan adds, it’s often more effective to use tougher state laws. “If we can get more significant sentences, the state should be doing those prosecutions,” says Sullivan. But both police and gun-control advocates argue that a shorter federal sentence can often be a bigger deterrent than a longer stint in the state penitentiary. “The federal penalty is one of the only things that scares kids,” Joyce says.

Another shortcoming of the state system is a case backlog that can leave criminals out on bail for more than a year while awaiting trial. “People’s confidence is shaken in the criminal justice system when that is happening,” says Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. To address the problem, his office led a push for special “gun court” sessions that tackle only firearms crimes, with a goal of getting each case decided within six months of arrest. Of course, for the gun court to be truly effective, perpetrators must be apprehended in the first place. In 2005, police identified suspects or made arrests in fewer than 30 percent of the year’s 75 murders. For nonfatal shootings, the numbers were worse. Only 4 percent of the 290 cases were prosecuted.

The biggest stumbling block to solving gun crimes, law enforcement leaders say, is witnesses’ unwillingness to testify. “We are faced with a code where today’s victim of a shooting becomes tomorrow’s shooter,” says Conley. “There are good people who are poor and frightened, and it’s very difficult to get people to step up.” It’s not surprising that young people living under the threat of retaliation decide to turn to readily available firepower, rather than the courts. In March, the state legislature finally passed a bill that provides $1.5 million to set up a witness protection program—and also makes sharing a community gun a crime punishable by a mandatory two years in jail. But it’s going to take more than that to restore faith in government for kids caught in the crosshairs. “They talk about war on terrorism,” says Shannan, the local student. “We have terrorism in this community—the gang bangers and drug pushers. It’s not in Iraq; it’s right here in Roxbury.”

There’s no way around it: The best hope of stopping the cycle of violence is stopping the flow of illegal guns. And Washington is not doing much to help local law enforcement cut off that supply. “I think people could look at the statutes and conclude they don’t give us all the tools we need or go far enough in consequences,” says U.S. Attorney Sullivan. “But we are prohibited from weighing in on that.” Anti-gun activist John Rosenthal is under no such constraints. “The problem is, there are no uniform laws so every state makes up its own,” he says. “We’re not going to see an end to gun violence until we see uniformity in laws” nationwide.

WHAT UNIFORMITY Congress is imposing these days benefits criminals more than police. During a committee hearing earlier this year, congressmen raked the ATF over the coals for trying to monitor gun shows. And the House of Representatives has taken up legislation that would place additional limits on the gun-tracing information ATF agents can share with local investigators—meaning out-of-state trafficking could get even harder to prosecute. “The last time I checked, law enforcement were the good guys,” Rosenthal says. “I sincerely believe if the majority of victims of urban violence were white, Congress would not be trying to restrict police.”

In the meantime, Boston police officers are trying to purge the city of weapons that, left at large, could lead to new highs in homicide rates. Officer Sheehan and his partners took the Hi-Point 9mm off the street. But given the way guns are passed from criminal to criminal, the 19 remaining guns linked to Mack Fludd could translate into dozens of shootings—and that’s just one gun trafficker. “It’s not like drugs that you consume and they are gone,” says detective Bulman. “You can have a gun that is 20 or 30 years old and still be a danger. One gun can stay around forever.”