You can get a lot of cool things in libraries: books, of course; music; movies; and games are all available at the library I frequent in my town. But Quebec's Alexis Vlachos took the library coolness factor up a notch when he added firearms to the inventory at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the national border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec—not that library officials knew their business model had been expanded.
Vlachos is out of business, at least for the moment, and behind bars. But his enterprising smuggling operation is a wonderful illustration of the opportunities for making a buck that restrictive laws always create, as well as of the valuable role porous borders play in undermining those laws.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont, Vlachos had two colleagues on the American side of the border, Annette Wexler and Jaime Ruiz, who "purchased these handguns from multiple federally licensed firearms dealers in the Tampa, Florida area." Getting the guns into Canada—where the country's stupidly restrictive firearms laws create a business opportunity for those enterprising enough to flout them—took a couple of forms. But:
On at least two occasions, in about March of 2011, Annette Wexler and Jaime Ruiz worked together to stash several firearms contained in small backpacks inside the trashcan of the library bathroom. Wexler then coordinated with Vlachos, who had entered the library from Quebec, to retrieve the firearms from the bathroom. Vlachos then transported the firearms to Quebec, where he sold many of them.
Forget Banned Books Week—this is banned stuff! If only all libraries were so cool. "Hey, could I renew this Glock?"
There's a reason Canadian consumers may be eager for smuggled firearms. Canada's laws regarding firearms are rather draconian—at least for those of us who feel no obligation to ask the government for permission to do things like owning the means for self-defense. Handguns in particular, are "restricted," requiring a license, registration, and inspection by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Even moving a gun from place to place—like to a range or a gunsmith—requires paperwork and legal risks. "Owners are required to have an Authorization to Transport that allows them to move their restricted gun using the most direct route to and from one of five places," Vice reported in 2014. "It's a federal offence to take a restricted gun places other than those approved by the ATT."
For those who can't, or won't, submit to the bureaucratic gauntlet, smugglers like Vlachos offer an important alternative source.
Vlachos seems to be more of an underground entrepreneur than a gun fancier per se. He also made a business of providing affordable cigarettes to Canadian smokers put off by their country's sky-high sin taxes.
"Canadian authorities nabbed Vlachos in February 2015—with a hockey bag full of smuggled cartons of cigarettes," Fox News reported at the time of Vlachos's recent sentencing to 51 months in federal prison. (He was sentenced in the U.S. for exporting guns without a license.)
"Contraband tobacco makes up roughly 30 [percent] of the total Canadian tobacco market," the free-market-oriented Fraser Institute found in 2011. The report largely attributes the booming black market trade to "relatively high and rising tobacco excise taxes." As a result, Investopedia noted in 2010, "cigarettes are almost double the price in Canada than in the States."
And Canada's government hiked federal cigarette taxes yet again this year, boosting opportunities for those willing to smuggle cigarettes from low-tax jurisdictions to consumers across the border.
Smuggling is an effective way of bypassing restrictive laws, but it's not a full substitute for dumping such laws entirely and forbidding government officials to inflict more. There are legal risks, as is clear from Vlachos's prison sentence. The legal risks apply to consumers, too, meaning that end-users are going to be the sort of people who view the law with disdain and aren't terribly fearful of the police. While none of the news reports I've seen about Vlachos describe his buyers, at least a few of them were likely criminals accustomed to dealing on the black market.
But it's unlikely that all of them were criminals. When Canadian federal investigators interviewed 20 men arrested for acquiring guns illegally, they discovered that seven of them "were free and passionate firearm collectors who were ready to acquire through illegal channels if it meant getting a gun that was difficult or impossible to obtain through legal means," according to the Canadian Press. And several of the other interviewees also had no criminal record prior to being arrested for their illicit purchases.
Likewise, while the Fraser Institute found that the illegal tobacco trade was largely supplied by organized crime, you don't get to a point where contraband makes up 30 percent of the cigarette market by selling only to criminals. Clearly, regular smokers unwilling to pay stiff, tax-driven prices are the vast majority of the customers.
So, restrictive laws drive criminal activity to satisfy the demand of customers who are largely everyday people unwilling to do the bidding of grasping, intrusive government officials. The best way to reduce crime, it seems, would be to cut taxes, ease laws, and leave people alone to live their lives as they wish.
But that's an old argument that has never moved government officials. They're always about to find that magic bullet that will stop their subjects from buying and selling popular goods and services that petty officials just don't like. The magic bullet just never materializews. Maybe they should have it smuggled in.
Whatever becomes of Alexis Vlachos himself, rest assured that there is a bright and promising future for people like him. Every draconian law, and every border with a less-restrictive jurisdiction, represents a business opportunity for ambitious people possessing a commendable streak of rebellion in their souls.
And maybe, if we're lucky, and if government officials and smugglers keep up their competitive efforts, the word "library" will someday come to refer to a full-service, smuggled goods emporium.