Herald gives antigun activists a win

Will stop distributing Maine catalog

By Vivian Nereim
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2009

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In Maine, Uncle Henry’s Swap or Sell it Guide is best known as a folksy compendium of thrift: a cheap way to buy puppies and snowmobiles directly from their owners. But in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods, the classified ad catalog’s firearm section - a black-and-white list of AK-47s, Rugers, and Glocks - serves as another link in the illegal gun trafficking chain, according to community activists.

Next week, the pastel-colored booklets will begin to disappear from shelves in liquor stores and Stop & Shops in Roxbury and Dorchester. Under pressure from Citizens for Safety and other organizations, the Boston Herald decided yesterday to stop distributing the publication in the Boston area.

“Our relationship has been severed,’’ said Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage. “There’s concern that firearms for sale in the book end up on the streets of Boston, and we didn’t want any part of that.’’

Most gun listings in Uncle Henry’s, which is based in Maine and distributed across New England, are placed by sellers from Maine and New Hampshire, where private firearm sales do not require background checks. The guide, public safety officials say, not only allows criminals to purchase guns that would be illegal here, but also allows them to circumvent Massachusetts’ much stricter gun-ownership requirements.

Uncle Henry’s publisher, Kevin Webb, said he would look into other distribution methods for Boston and that the guide’s website would continue to list firearms. But activists behind the push still see the development as a major victory.

“That’s just wonderful news,’’ said Cathie Whittenburg, director of the New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he was heartened by the decision, writing in an e-mail that “Uncle Henry’s has been explicitly linked to black market firearms entering Boston and being used to commit crimes on our streets and neighborhoods.’’

In one example, Boston police traced a .45-caliber Glock that was picked up during a 2003 arrest to a Maine resident, the last known purchaser. He told police he had sold it 28 days earlier to a man he knew as Michael Smith through an ad placed in Uncle Henry’s.

“Michael Smith’’ was actually Michael Fowler, a Lynn man convicted in 2006 of buying more than 20 guns illegally in Maine and New Hampshire and selling them in Boston. According to court documents, eight of the nine guns linked to Fowler and recovered by Boston police were traced to listings in Uncle Henry’s.

In a similar case, Stanley Jenkins, a Roslindale resident affiliated with a Dorchester gang, was convicted in June of trafficking guns and crack cocaine between Maine and Boston. Jenkins contended that he could double or triple his money by reselling firearms in Boston that he found through Uncle Henry’s, said US District Attorney Daniel Perry, who prosecuted the case.

Recent listings placed in Uncle Henry’s Massachusetts print edition offered an AK-47 with 100 rounds of ammunition for $600 and a Smith & Wesson model 36 for $325. Uncle Henry’s website overflows with cheaper wares: a .25-caliber Sterling handgun for $100 and a kit with instructions to build the body of an AK-47 for $49.

Each listing includes a phone number. Potential buyers call to arrange a meeting time. The rest of the interaction is up to the seller.

Some ads carry warnings, requiring proof of a license to carry or identification from potential buyers. Many ads do not, though. Court documents indicate that the man who sold the Glock to Michael Fowler had checked his ID, but Fowler carried a fake Maine drivers’ license.

Webb said that Uncle Henry’s follows the law when recommending how people buy and sell guns, but cannot be held accountable if people disregard its recommendations.

“We are not in the business of trying to enforce the law,’’ he said. “I think it’s time in this world that people start taking responsibility for their actions. People kill people; guns don’t kill people.’’

But to Jamarhl Crawford of the New Black Panthers, who spearheaded the effort to persuade the Herald to stop distributing Uncle Henry’s, the listings make it too easy for criminals to buy guns.

Often, he said, Boston criminals would drive as far as North Carolina for guns.

“Having to drive to Maine rather than driving to North Carolina or Virginia?’’ he said. “That’s a sweet deal.’’

Crawford said he had never heard of Uncle Henry’s until he went to a community meeting held in May by Citizens for Safety, which was attended by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Conley, and other officials.

Crawford started to notice the booklet as soon as he left. “I saw it everywhere all of a sudden,’’ he said.

Yesterday, at the corner store near his home in Roxbury, teal copies of the newest edition of Uncle Henry’s filled a basket by the cash register. Crawford said he hopes he will never see them there again.

Vivian Nereim can be reached at