WASHINGTON (AP) — With New York's crucial presidential nominating contest looming, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is framing gun laws in Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont as a primary culprit of violent crime in the Empire State.
Her latest offensive, however, depends on a narrow and arguably irrelevant use of federal gun data.
Speaking on Long Island, New York, this week, Clinton said that when Sanders is "challenged on his gun stances, he frequently says: 'Well, I represent Vermont. It's a small, rural state.'"
Clinton added: "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. The state that has the highest per-capita number of those guns that end up committing crime in New York come from Vermont."
That drew audible gasps from her audience, convened by the campaign to talk specifically about gun laws.
For months, Clinton has used the gun issue to cast Sanders as a minion for gun makers and out of step with a Democratic primary electorate that favors tighter firearms restrictions. While technically correct, her latest charge relies on a carefully crafted framing of statistics.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms compiles data about weapons recovered from crime scenes nationwide, along with data, where possible, about where those guns were originally sold by licensed dealers. The agency reports that in 2014, law enforcement officials in New York recovered and traced 7,686 guns.
The state itself was the source for 1,397 of the weapons, making it the leader in absolute numbers. Virginia was runner-up, with 395. Vermont ranked 15th on the list, accounting for 55 of the weapons — less than 1 percent of the total.
Yet Vermont ranks 49th in population among the 50 states, with 626,042 residents in 2014. That means on a per-person basis, Vermont becomes the top source of guns recovered in New York and traced to their origin.
By comparison, neighboring Pennsylvania accounted for 371 of the recovered weapons in New York. But with its population of 12.8 million, Pennsylvania's per capita contribution was one weapon for every 34,508 residents.
John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said Clinton's analysis was statistically correct but focused on the wrong numbers. "It doesn't matter how many people live in Vermont. It matters how many bad gun dealers there are," Roman said.
He said even just two bad dealers could easily be responsible for the 55 guns traced in New York in 2014. More important, he said, is examining where and how guns move around the country, such as via the "Iron Pipeline." The so-called pipeline funnels guns from states with looser gun laws to those with strict local regulations, such as New York and New Jersey.
The Sanders campaign criticized Clinton's tactic. "No wonder so many people say they don't trust her," spokesman Michael Briggs said via email, adding that Vermont contributes only a "tiny fraction of the overall out-of-state guns" recovered annually in New York.
A separate Sanders campaign statement also noted that Clinton has welcomed support from Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said, "I think you'd have a hard time convincing Vermonters that New York's crime problems are coming from Vermont."
Clinton's campaign says the comparison still is relevant. Because Vermont is among states with the fewest barriers to gun purchases, aides say, it is ripe for exporting weapons to states like New York, which boasts some of the nation's toughest weapons regulations. They say that makes Clinton's case on the need for tougher national regulations that apply across all states.
Associated Press reporter Lisa Lerer contributed to this report. Barrow reported from Atlanta.