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Globe Editorial

Craigslist case reveals need to enforce existing gun laws

April 5, 2011

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NO, THERE probably won’t be tougher laws in New Hampshire anytime soon. But surely people can agree that existing laws, however bare-bones they are, should be enforced with diligence. Essentially, buyers should have to prove they are who they say they are, and aren’t criminals. That didn’t happen in the case of Craigslist killer Philip Markoff, the medical student who shot to death 25-year-old Julissa Brisman at the Boston Marriott Copley Place in April 2009.

Showing up at the State Line Gun Shop in Mason, N.H., Markoff presented an ID that wouldn’t pass muster at a campus dive bar. The blond Markoff showed an old New York driver’s license belonging to Andrew H. Miller, who is dark-haired and heavier. Markoff explained the out-of-state license by claiming he had just enrolled at Daniel Webster College, in Nashua. The clerk responded by asking him to obtain a residency affadavit notarized by the city.

Markoff went to the city clerk’s office, wrote out a form in which he misspelled his own alias, and obtained the notarized record. No rent check, tuition payment, or utility bill was required; the city clerk later explained to investigators that no documentation is necessary for a notarized residency affidavit.

If this is a common way to verify residency for the purpose of buying a gun — the method suggested by gun-store clerks — it’s worse than ineffective. It’s a sham. So Markoff got his gun, and became one of 105 people that year who bought firearms in the Granite State and used them to commit crimes in Massachusetts.

New Hampshire’s permissive approach to guns reflects long-established customs — family hunting rituals, the collecting of rifles dating back to George Washington’s flintlock. Unfortunately, respect for these traditions morphs too easily into an argument for easy access to cheap handguns that get used in crime elsewhere.

If there were tougher laws, or even tougher enforcement, would Markoff have gotten his gun anyway? It’s hard to say, actually. Markoff, who eventually committed suicide, was a strange, jittery criminal, living a double life as a dream-husband-to-be with his doting fiancee while robbing prostitutes he found on Craigslist. He didn’t necessarily need a gun for the robberies, and may well have chosen to do without one if he’d confronted greater resistance at the gun store.

Now, Brisman’s mother says she wants those responsible for Markoff’s obtaining the gun to be held accountable. The US attorney sees no grounds for a criminal case, because there was no intentional conduct. But the family could yet sue. New Hampshire jurors would then have to decide whether the state’s libertarian streak excuses a gun merchant’s decision to sell to a man with a patently fake ID.