Digging deeper into the abyss of reckless unchecked state spending on guns and ammo
In the last week of September, we published the first installment of what will eventually be a multipart, expansive look at militarized muscle in Mass. Subtitled, “Even for weapons dealers who have flouted state laws, there is major money to be made by selling munitions to police in Massachusetts,” the feature outlined a demonstrably opaque police purchasing process that has scant internal oversight and specifically impugned a massive umbrella contract, abbreviated as AMMO, that enables law enforcement agencies to secure everything from “handguns,” to “silencers, tasers, tear gas, chemical munitions, pepperball launchers, dart guns, gas masks, and ballistic blankets.”
Among other highlights, our report noted the following:
- Mass spends millions every year replenishing and bolstering its arsenals, plus adding advanced equipment and technology. As do municipal police and other taxpayer-funded public safety outfits. These purchases often have little to no oversight beyond the procuring departments, and have as a result spurred certain impropriety.
- One dealer of military gear who has been entangled in two separate controversies involving giving questionable gifts—guns, as well as other favors—to state purchasing agents has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods to Mass in the last three years. Other active sellers include a shop that the AG recently caught selling guns that are banned in this state.
- The state is spending more than it’s supposed to on these weapons. In regards to AMMO, the open contract was slated to total $1.5 million over its initial three-year term (2015-2018), or double that ($3 million) if it’s extended three more years through 2021, as is possible through optional one-year extensions. In practice, the state police, with some help from the Department of Correction and Environmental Police, spent more than $3 million—twice the initial allotment—in just the first three years, from 2015 to mid-2018. This is a theme that has continually come up in our research, and that we are investigating as it pertains to numerous contracts.
Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements for everything from body armor and silencers to stun guns and tasers, the latter of which is the subject of an upcoming feature in this series. For the investigation into the multifaceted AMMO contract, we filed a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests to the offices of AG Maura Healey, the Massachusetts State Police, and the state’s Operational Services Division, which oversees purchasing (to varying degrees depending on the situation, as we are learning, but more on that in a moment).
As was acknowledged in our late-September expose, of the public entities that we sent inquiries to, only AG Healey’s office replied by our deadline, and even it failed to produce all of the documents requested. In the time since, however, with assistance from the Cambridge-based FOIA site MuckRock, we have successfully secured several responses—some of which are of particular interest and will be used in subsequent stories, and others of which confirm problems first identified by our deep dive—notably, that police solicitation of guns and other combat gear is done solely by departments that weigh options and decide on agreements, without any scrutiny from other agencies.
Responding nearly a month after we filed our request for information, OSD, the department of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance that manages thousands of state contracts for various departments every year, answered that it plays no role at all in the relevant munitions buys. A spokesperson confirmed that three disgraced troopers, who we found listed on state web sites as if they were still playing a role in making procurement decisions despite having been caught scamming the process, have since had their names removed from materials. Otherwise, OSD directed us back to the state police, who were even less forthcoming.
Responding more than a month after we filed our request, MSP attorneys claimed that releasing “information relative to the model, make, and quantity of weapons purchased or to be purchased” would “jeopardize public safety.” “Protecting information and techniques necessary to its [law enforcement’s] performance of effective police work,” they argue, takes precedence “over the interests of the general public in its access to this information.” To justify their claims, MSP attorneys cited a Supreme Judicial Court case from 1976, Bougas v. Chief of Police of Lexington. Often referenced by police departments as a rationale for keeping records private, the landmark case addressed agency discretion in producing public documents, but makes no mention at all of munitions or procurement and purchasing.
In one moment of clarity, a state police spokesperson did confirm that there is zero outside oversight of millions of dollars in purchasing done by the department. According to MSP Media Communications Director David Procopio: “The Colonel of the State Police and her Command Staff make weapon procurement decisions after consultation with the Department’s Armorer and Firearms Training Unit, in consideration of input from the ranks and industry standards, and in accordance with state purchasing laws.”
We also received access to hundreds of emails between gun sellers and state police buyers. Though mostly mundane and procedural, some threads do shine light on how relationships in this realm are still flourishing in cases where the former has run afoul of the Mass attorney general. In one email exchange from November 2016, an MSP lieutenant requested a specific item (the exact name of which the department redacted in its response to our records request) but was told by the dealer that while it was in stock, “according to the attorney general’s office we won’t be able to sell them until they are on the approved weapons roster.” Two months prior, the Boston Globe revealed that Healey’s office found that the same vendor reportedly gave free guns to troopers who were responsible for firearm purchasing; nevertheless, the lieutenant’s sympathies lie with the dealer, as he replied, “Unbelievable—obviously them not you folks.”
Meanwhile, AMMO was extended for another 12 months on Oct 31. That despite participating agencies already having spent approximately double their allotted $1.5 million budget over the first three years.
And that isn’t the only money pumping through the Bay State gun market. In the first Fire Sale feature, we also noted several campaign contributions that have been made in this state on behalf of gun dealers. Members of the family of one such contributor, a major investor behind the Westfield-based gun supplier Camfour, wrote more than $20,000 in checks to Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito from 2015 to mid-2018.
From Sept 28, the day after our article published, through this most recent Election Day in which Baker easily rocked his opponent, that same family gave another $3,750 to the governor’s campaign.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of an ongoing series on procurement and purchasing in Massachusetts. Our reporting is done in part with MuckRock and the Emerson College Engagement Lab, and has been made possible by a grant from the Online News Association. To see more reporting like this, you can contribute at givetobinj.org.