Giving Up the Gun

In Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods, criminals routinely use women to traffic and hide illegal guns. Can Operation Lipstick, a new education campaign, make a difference?
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Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

Melissa is a 33-year-old mother of four from Roxbury with honey-brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and an encyclopedic knowledge of guns. “Anything from a .38 to a 9 to a semiautomatic to a full automatic, you name it, I can identify it,” she says. From the time she was 12 until she was about 20, if you needed a gun, she could hook you up: She knew who to talk to, who the suppliers were, how much it would cost, and where to make a handoff. “I know somebody,” she would say. “Let me see what I can do.” Her clients included drug dealers and gangbangers, and from their point of view, she was uniquely suited to her trade. She had no arrest record, and she was young—and female, so less likely to be on a cop’s radar. “In hindsight,” she says now, “I was being taken advantage of.”

This year, as the city experienced an uptick in gun-related homicides, law enforcement officials saw evidence that women have been playing a larger role in illegal gun exchanges. In part, this rise may be an unexpected side effect of Massachusetts’ mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, which have many felons wary about picking up new charges, officials in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office report. Rather than risk gun purchases themselves, criminals often ask the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and, in the case of sex traffickers, prostitutes—to buy guns for them, a practice that law enforcement officials refer to as a “straw purchase.”

At the same time, experts around the country say they’re seeing a notable rise in gun violence against women, and in Boston, gun-related incidents involving females have tripled in the past year. Because more women are involved in the sale of illegal guns, gang members see them as fair game, says Jake Wark, the spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney.

“A lot of these women are not career criminals, but are being taken advantage of through threats or intimidation,” says David Chipman, a former special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. While working with the ATF, Chipman routinely interviewed women caught up in the illegal gun trade. “They hadn’t connected the dots and realized how serious their actions were.I don’t think they understood the legal liability,” he says.

Studies indicate that when a woman buys a gun for someone else, that gun is twice as likely to be involved in a crime. Under federal law, someone caught buying a gun illegally for another person can be charged with a felony. In Massachusetts, hiding or carrying an unlicensed firearm is a crime that can result in at least 18 months in prison. Law enforcement officials say they’ve seen many women who have been picked up for gun trafficking lose their homes or the custody of their children. What’s more, they’re putting their own lives in danger: The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns has found that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases a woman’s risk of homicide by 500 percent.

Melissa, who asked that we use only her middle name, says she thought of her role in Roxbury’s gun culture as being transactional, a way to gain status. “With guns comes money and the drugs and all the material things,” she says. “I could go around with a real gold ring, a real diamond necklace—things that my peers couldn’t afford.” And because of her boyfriend’s reputation, she says, “No one would mess with me…. And you know, when you’re 14, 15, or 16, that’s the coolest thing.”

There are many reasons why women traffic guns. Some, like Melissa, do it as a favor, or as a way to earn money. She says she still knows of women who can earn $1,000 or more for stashing guns in an attic for a local gang. Other young women get involved in gunrunning in exchange for drugs or protection. Some are coerced into buying guns by violent domestic partners. And many subscribe to the “Ride or Die” ethos of the streets: a stand-by-your-man mentality that suggests that you’re with him to the end, no matter what he asks of you.

 

Given all of these factors, any social program seeking to disrupt the gun trade has its work cut out for it. Nonetheless, there is one program that’s trying. Operation LIPSTICK (the acronym stands for Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings), the first of its kind in the country, aims to give women a forum to exchange information and spread awareness of the dangers of gun trafficking. It’s the creation of Nancy Robinson, a petite, blond-bobbed mom from Newton, a suburb that is—criminally speaking—about as far from Roxbury as Tibet. Back in the early aughts, after the Columbine shootings, Robinson started a group called Massachusetts Against Trafficking Handguns. In 2008 she became the executive director of Citizens for Safety, a Boston-based anti-gun-trafficking group that has been working to close the loopholes in the gun laws since the early 1990s, pushing for criminal background checks for all gun purchases and higher penalties for gun dealers who sell firearms to felons.

But nationwide, most of these obvious solutions to the gun crisis have failed. Local groups such as Stop Handgun Violence have argued, persuasively, that the country needs to implement a better system for background checks to reduce the number of guns on the streets, but the National Rifle Association has successfully blocked all attempts to federally regulate background checks. It has even lobbied Congress to pass a law prohibiting the funding of studies that treat the urban gun epidemic as a public health crisis. Despite widespread public support for tighter gun restrictions—a September Gallup poll found 49 percent of the country wanted stricter laws governing the sale of firearms—Congress has refused to take action.

“Up until now, when we think about reducing gun violence, we’ve thought about it in terms of gun control: this polarized debate where you’re either pro-gun or anti-gun,” Robinson says. “We’ve always thought, We’ve got to get stronger laws in place. But that doesn’t always work.”

So in the absence of legislation and without funding for further research, Citizens for Safety has launched a campaign to change social norms and reorient the public conversation about gun safety. “Shift the focus beyond the 14- or 15-year-old [who commits a crime] to the system that put the gun in his hands illegally,” Robinson says. “Multiple people had to break the law to make that gun available to that kid.”


Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Contributor jnanos@bostonmagazine.com