Initiative Calls Attention To Role Women Play In Illegal Gun Trade

Jan 3, 2014

Most firearms in the U.S. start out in a state of perfect legality, sold by a manufacturer to a federally-licensed dealer. But somewhere along the way, some of them cross the line, and become what are called "crime guns."

In Boston, a new initiative is calling attention to the role women play in the illegal gun trade, and the consequences they face.

Federal statistics show that most gun crimes are committed by men. But research also shows that women can play an outsized role in the marketplace for illegal guns. Often, they purchase --in what's called a 'straw buy' -- or stow away a firearm that's not for their own use, but for men who then use it in a crime.

One Boston resident knows the story well. She was a teenager when she met a man, an older man, who as she says was "in the life." And she was impressed.

In her thirties now, the woman asked not to be named, fearing repercussions for her and her family. She says about two years into their relationship her then-boyfriend asked her to hold a package for him -- a semi-automatic, plus ammo, wrapped in rags.

Her involvement with illegal guns quickly escalated, and diversified. Always, though, her boyfriend controlled the money.

She does care now. That's why she's here at the Dorchester public library, for the monthly meeting of Operation LIPSTICK. LIPSTICK is an acronym for Ladies Involved In Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings.

Ruth Rollins, who works in a Roxbury domestic violence safe house, leads today's workshop. Like many who speak, she has direct experience with gun violence: her son's still-unsolved murder six years ago. Now she calls herself a LIPSTICK lady.

There are a few young women in the audience. But it's mostly adults. Rollins says many of the young women caught up in the illegal gun economy, and sometimes their parents, are numb to what they are really doing. They let themselves be sweet-talked into it. They are tempted by money, or drugs. Even things as basic as baby diapers can be an incentive to handle a crime gun.

Often, she says, domestic violence is at the heart of it. The man's power and control over the woman includes coercing her into the illegal gun trade. Rollins says she wants social service workers, prosecutors and police to recognize that reality.

Nancy Robinson got Operation LIPSTICK off the ground in 2012 after seeing research that, almost as an aside, documented women's disproportionate role in the illegal gun trade.

Now, LIPSTICK Volunteers are responding by knocking on doors, visiting beauty salons, speaking at churches, holding the monthly leadership workshops. The group is launching social-media and billboard campaigns aimed at young women.

The lipstick effort is gaining wider recognition. The department of justice has provided a modest grant. The Suffolk county district attorney and Boston police are sending representatives to lipstick's community meetings. Social service workers and Harvard’s school of public health are looking at the issue.

The most concrete evidence that the LIPSTICK message is resonating? Robinson says more than 2,500 people, mostly women, have signed a pledge promising not to buy, hide, or hold guns for someone else.

It does seem to be making a difference in the life of the Boston resident we met earlier. She got out of the illegal gun network several years ago, but today, she still feels its tug.

The pictures of the weapons came via social media, she says. She thought about the money she could make - the gifts she could buy her children. But then she thought about the life she's building on the right side of the law, her studies, the honest example she wants to set for her kids.

"I'm like, I just missed out on $5,000 for about 15 minutes worth of work. Do I regret it? No, I don't. Do I wish? Yeah I kind of wish. But I can't go back."

She deleted most of the pictures, keeping one, she says, to remind her of the life she'd left behind.The next day she was in Dorchester, back with the LIPSTICK ladies.