- James Buck
- Seven Days political editor Paul Heintz on Monday with an AR-15
A stranger handed me an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle Monday afternoon in a South Burlington parking lot. I handed him an envelope stuffed with $500 cash. We filled out no paperwork and completed no background check. He had no idea who I was nor what my intentions were, and he did not ask. Nine minutes after I met the man, I drove away with the sort of weapon used 39 hours earlier to slaughter 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub.
In Vermont, home to the nation's most permissive gun laws, everything I did was perfectly legal.
My unexpected gun purchase began with a simple Google search for "AR-15 Vermont." The top result, armslist.com, provided plenty of local options. I emailed one seller at 7:33 a.m. Monday and asked whether I could buy his weapon that day. Over the next several hours, we exchanged 18 emails.
The gun, he wrote, was in "fair condition" and needed only a $30 extractor arm. He said he'd cut the listed price by $50 and show me how to install the part.
"Does it shoot as-is?" I asked. "Hoping to buy ASAP. You're in Burlington, right?"
By 10:11 a.m. we had settled on a plan.
"I would probably have to meet around 5ish, if that is alright. And how about the parking lot by Five Guys right off of Route 7?" the seller wrote, adding a few minutes later, "Also, I'm going to need you to bring photo ID."
"Would it be OK if we skipped that step?" I replied.
"If you are visibly of-age then yes," he wrote.
A little after 5 p.m., a young man wearing a blue flannel shirt, Carhartts and Timberlands approached me outside the Five Guys, which is sandwiched between a Chipotle and a GNC in a busy shopping center next to Interstate 189. The seller was tall and rail-thin, with short blond hair and stubbly facial hair.
"Hey, how are you?" he asked.
"Good. How are you?" I said as I shook his hand. "Nice to meet you."
The man pointed to his car across the parking lot and suggested I move mine to the space next to it. He opened his rear passenger-side door, apologized for the car's messy state and unzipped an olive green carrying case. The weapon was a generic AR-15, with a Radical Firearms mid-length barrel, an Aero Precision lower receiver and a Walther PS 22 red-dot sight. It came with three empty 30-round magazines.
The gun was no different than those used to kill 26 people in Newtown, Conn., 12 in Aurora, Colo., and 14 in San Bernardino, Calif. Police initially said the Orlando gunman used an AR-15 but later clarified that it had been a similar weapon: a Sig Sauer MCX.
"Really fun. Really easy to shoot," the seller said as he showed me how to use it.
A young woman with blond hair and glasses sat in the front passenger seat. She remained silent and only once looked back at me and the seller, flashing a friendly smile.
"It's so popular and easy and fun to shoot [because] it's just about the most straightforward thing you could ask for," the man said. "You know?"
"Well, that's what I'll need," I said.
He handed me the weapon, the barrel of which protruded from the carrying case. I placed it in the backseat of my car and covered it with a jacket.
"Very good," I said, handing him the envelope of cash. "Smaller bills. So, I hope that's OK. Give it a look."
"No worries, dude," he told me. "I trust it's all there."
We shook hands. I got in my car and drove away.
- Paul Heintz
- Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, and Chittenden County State's Attorney at a press conference Monday at the King Street Center
Five hours before I bought the AR-15, I dropped by Burlington's King Street Center, where several of the state's top politicians and law enforcement officials were holding a press conference. Twenty minutes into the event, I asked Gov. Peter Shumlin — Vermont's most powerful and uncompromising gun rights supporter — whether the previous day's massacre had changed his views.
"No, because I believe you need a 50-state solution," the third-term Democrat responded. "If you're going to commit some heinous act, and you can buy the gun in New Hampshire, you're gonna go get it in New Hampshire."
I continued: "But right now in Vermont, any one of us here could walk down the street and get the same gun that was used in this attack, without any kind of background check at all. The person could do that if they have a criminal record, if they have a history of mental illness, or they could be on a terrorist watch list. If someone did that in Vermont, would that—"
The governor interjected.
"Paul, you're as aware of the current law as I am, and it's not quite as simple as you suggested," he said. "But all I can say is: You know where I stand."
Indeed, Shumlin's position has barely budged since the start of the mass-shooting era. Even as he's argued that Vermont should lead the way on labeling genetically modified organisms and limiting carbon emissions, he has cautioned against joining the 18 states that require federal background checks before some or all private gun sales. Last year, he threatened to veto a modest gun-control bill until it was diminished to what he called a "shadow" of its former self.
In that same period, other Vermont pols have evolved.
After the July 2012 shooting at an Aurora movie theater, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told the Addison County Independent that gun laws should be left to the states. Five months later, following the massacre at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, all three began to reverse course — eventually embracing federal legislation that would ban assault weapons and mandate universal background checks.
Sanders, who was elected to Congress in 1990 after the National Rifle Association turned on his opponent, seemed to support the bill with some reluctance.
"If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don't think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen," he told me in a March 2013 interview.
Following a shooting last December at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, former transportation secretary Sue Minter became the first gubernatorial candidate in recent memory to call for universal background checks in Vermont. Fellow Democratic candidate Matt Dunne declined to follow suit. Days later, after the San Bernardino shooting, he said he'd consider all options. In April, he endorsed universal background checks.
Former state senator Peter Galbraith, who entered the race in March, also supported them. On Monday, he upped the ante, calling for a ban on "weapons of war," such as the AR-15. Minter, who had previously dodged questions about an assault-weapons ban, quickly followed Galbraith's lead. Dunne's campaign repeatedly refused to disclose his current position on such a ban.
Both Republican gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman, said Monday that they continued to believe Vermont should enact no new gun laws.
At the King Street Center, some politicians were still finding their footing. Asked whether he supported universal background checks or an assault-weapons ban, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said, elliptically, "I support responsible gun ownership." Asked again, he said, "I'm open to the discussion," adding that enforcement of existing laws should come first.
Donovan, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, approached me after the press conference to amend his answer. All those buying firearms in Vermont should be subject to a background check, he said, "with the caveat of the efficacy of it."
Asked what on Earth that meant, Donovan dropped the caveat.
- Paul Heintz
- Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, at a vigil Monday at Burlington City Hall
Forty minutes after I bought the AR-15, I parked at the Burlington Police Department's North Avenue headquarters and walked five blocks to Church Street. I left the gun in my locked car.
More than 1,500 people had flooded the downtown pedestrian walkway to mourn those killed and wounded Sunday at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. They marched from the First Unitarian Universalist Society church to Burlington City Hall, some in silence and some singing. Family members, friends and strangers locked arms and carried rainbow flags and handmade signs.
"Love, not hate," one sign read.
"We are Orlando," read another.
Sanders, whose presidential campaign was coming to an end, marched beside his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, and Pride Center of Vermont executive director Kim Fountain. U.S. Secret Service agents swarmed around them, hands near their pockets, and a depleted contingent of national reporters walked alongside. As Sanders passed Burlington City Hall, a group of people in front of him sang the 1969 antiwar ballad "One Tin Soldier."
"Go ahead and hate your neighbor. Go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of heaven. You can justify it in the end," they sang. "There won't be any trumpets blowing come the judgment day. On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away."
The congregation of mourners turned right on Main Street and amassed in City Hall Park. Community leaders, led by Fountain, Sanders and former state representative Jason Lorber, mounted the city hall steps and stood in the early evening sun, next to an American flag, a Vermont flag and a rainbow flag.
"Tonight we want to stand in solidarity with one another," Fountain told the crowd. "We want to stand against the hate speech and the narrow-mindedness that led to this shooting in the first place. We must meet violence with compassion."
Sanders followed Fountain to the podium and waved to the crowd. Thirty-three years earlier, when he was mayor of Burlington, he had called on the board of aldermen to formally recognize the city's first gay pride march. Now, as a presidential candidate, he was there to mourn with the community.
"It says a whole lot about our great city to see so many people out here this evening," he said, his eyes squinting from the sun's glare.
Sanders offered his condolences and reminded his audience that while the Orlando gunman may have been Muslim, "To blame an entire religion for the acts of a single individual is bigotry — pure and simple." Then he broached the topic of gun violence — perhaps the only issue on which rival presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had run to his left.
"All of you know that the weapon used in Orlando was legally purchased," he said. "And it is time for us to really rethink something that I have believed for decades: whether or not it makes sense for people today to walk into a store and purchase a military-style weapon, which has one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to kill people."
- Paul Heintz
- Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo on Monday with the AR-15
Shortly after the vigil, I met Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Deputy Chief Jannine Wright in another parking lot for another gun exchange. This one, too, was perfectly legal.
Outside the department's headquarters, I unlocked my car and opened the trunk. Del Pozo pulled the weapon out of its carrying case and inspected it.
"This is a, uh, AR-15," he announced, holding it in both hands. "This is the civilian version of the military M16 — the nation's assault rifle — used by the infantry in the Marines. This is similar to the weapon I used when I was in the Army National Guard as an infantry officer."
In New York City, where del Pozo had spent much of his career, what I'd done would have been illegal. The chief seemed as if he were still adjusting to Vermont's nearly nonexistent gun laws.
"We're beginning to see some of the consequences of access to these types of weapons," he noted.
A few minutes later, Lt. Dennis Duffy, the department's firearms instructor, joined us in the parking lot.
"How much did you pay for it?" he asked.
"Five hundred dollars," I responded.
"You got a deal!" he said.
I followed the officers into BPD headquarters and watched as Duffy called in the serial number to determine whether the weapon had been reported stolen.
"Dennis, the part that irks me is there was no background check," del Pozo said, pointing in my direction. "He could be a jihadi or a right-wing Aryan guy or — he could work for [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. I mean, he does have a beard."
The radio crackled.
"All clear," said an officer who had run the serial number through the National Crime Information Center database.
At del Pozo's suggestion, I turned over the gun to the Queen City Police Foundation, which would give it to the department for use in training — so the BPD might be prepared if it ever encountered a mass shooting. I signed a receipt and walked out to my car.
On my way home, I stopped at Pearl Street Beverage to buy a six-pack of beer. The clerk, I noticed, was asking for identification from each of his customers.
When I checked my inbox later that night, I saw that the man who'd sold me the AR-15 had emailed shortly after I'd left the Five Guys parking lot.
"I don't know you, but I trust that you have been watching the news," he wrote. "Please don't make me regret selling that firearm. It was good to meet you, and hope it was just what you were looking for."