In an attempt to score political points against Sen. Bernard Sanders, Hillary Clinton now says that the senator’s home state of Vermont is a key culprit in New York gun crime — but federal data show that claim is misleading at best, and even some of Mrs. Clinton’s own supporters turned on her Tuesday and said her argument is simply false.
Mrs. Clinton made the initial charge Monday night at a roundtable discussion on gun violence in New York and used it as ammunition in making the case Mr. Sanders is too weak on gun laws. The attack comes just one week before Empire State Democrats go to the polls in what will be a crucial contest in the party’s primary election, and Mrs. Clinton’s strategy is a clear attempt to indirectly tie Mr. Sanders to New York gun crimes and relatively loose firearms laws in Vermont.
Even though Mr. Sanders has had no influence on Vermont gun laws because he’s been in Congress for the past 25 years, the former first lady still latched on to the issue. Mrs. Clinton cited ATF figures showing that, when adjusting for population, more guns from Vermont were recovered in New York than firearms from any other state in 2014.
“Here’s what I want you to know: Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state,” Mrs. Clinton said at the Port Washington forum. “And the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont.”
Her argument technically is correct, but the raw numbers tell a much different story.
The ATF data — which trace the source states of firearms recovered in New York — show that just 55 Vermont guns were recovered in New York in 2014, making Vermont the 14th-highest offender.
For comparison purposes, nearly 1,400 guns recovered in New York were from inside the state. A dozen other states also were much higher offenders than Vermont, including Pennsylvania, with 371 guns seized in New York; Virginia, with 395; North Carolina, with 279; Georgia, with 386; and a host of others.
Even California was nearly on par with Vermont. Forty-nine California guns were recovered in New York in 2014, federal data show.
The argument isn’t sitting well with prominent Vermont officials, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Clinton supporter.
“It is campaign season, therefore things are sometimes said by all the candidates that sometimes aren’t entirely accurate,” he said, according to Vermont’s WCAX television station. “I think you’d have a hard time convincing Vermonters that New York’s crime problems are coming from Vermont.”
Gun specialists say that while Vermont does have lax gun laws compared to its neighbors, blaming the state for New York crime simply isn’t fair.
“If you just say where are most of the guns coming from in New York City? The answer is down south on I-95 … Vermont is a small part of that. In terms of what it means for gun violence in New York, Vermont is a small player,” said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy studies at Duke University who specializes in crime and firearms.
Even gun control advocates say the federal figures can be spun differently.
“If you look at the raw data, it doesn’t seem like that much because we’re a 30th the size” of New York, said Ann Braden, president of the gun control advocacy group Gun Sense Vermont, which is pushing for stronger background checks and other measures.
“You can have both sides saying opposite things and the statistics they’re relying on can be correct.”
Ms. Braden stressed, however, that she believes Vermont must stop the flow of guns into other states.
“From our perspective in Vermont, it makes sense to talk about it from the per capita perspective,” she said. “The system is only as strong as its weakest link, and Vermont is one of the weak links in the Northeast.”
Furthermore, analysts say blaming Mr. Sanders for Vermont’s gun laws is a stretch, though not a surprising one during a presidential primary fight.
“It’s true that as a senator he didn’t have much direct involvement in state law,” Mr. Cook said. “You could argue that Sanders should have understood his position differently when he went to Washington and was legislating for the whole nation.”
Differences on guns have become a key distinction between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders throughout this primary season. Mr. Sanders has stressed, for example, that he does not believe gun manufacturers should be sued for selling products legally, but he does believe there are cases in which they should be held liable. Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly blasted that position.
“I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people,” Mr. Sanders told the New York Daily News last week. “So if somebody walks in and says, ‘I’d like 10,000 rounds of ammunition,’ you know, well, you might be suspicious about that. So I think there are grounds for those suits, but not if you sell me a legal product.”
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign did not return calls seeking comment.