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Backstory: Best Unintentional Story Tip

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The Nazi Reichsadler emblem - FILE PHOTOS: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File Photos: Paul Heintz
  • The Nazi Reichsadler emblem

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.


How do reporters come up with story ideas? More often than not, I learn about my next story while reporting the one before it. In the course of an interview, a source might mention something that's off-topic but really interesting. I'll file it away in a list I keep and return to it soon.

That happened this summer as I was reporting a story about the use of "extreme risk protection orders" in Vermont in the year since Gov. Phil Scott signed a package of gun-control bills into law. In the course of my reporting, I learned that Commissioner Chris Cole of the Department of Buildings and General Services was working on a system to dispose of seized and abandoned firearms in state custody.

When I called Cole, I was surprised to learn that the state was already auctioning off the guns. I was intrigued when he mentioned that they were being kept in "an undisclosed location," about which he would say nothing more. And I knew I had a story when he casually mentioned that among those seized guns were two World War II-era rifles with Nazi insignia.

Excuse me. Did you say Nazi?

Clearly I betrayed a bit too much excitement at the notion that the state might be selling off swastika-adorned guns. Cole, likely realizing that he'd stepped in it, did his best to hedge. "Well, they're definitely German military."

Spoiler alert: They were Nazi guns.

I realized this nugget was too good to fritter away as a minor detail in an unrelated story, so I put it on my list and returned to it later. Cole, however, didn't seem thrilled about revisiting the subject. I asked him a couple of times whether he would let me tour the "undisclosed location," and he finally relented. But to get there, he joked, I would have to be blindfolded.

Yep, I had a story.