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.”

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  • MrApple

    So how about instead of dumping more laws on the law abiding citizens of this country we enforce the laws already on the books. Let’s arrest the women in this article for “straw purchasing”, gun trafficking, and hiding unlicensed firearms. OR we could just come up with more laws for them to ignore while restricting those that obey the laws. Your choice.

    • AnnaSumpter

      But that would be too haaaaaaaard…

      They’d have to stop and frisk (and cavity-search) every single one of them, and then the department would get sexual-harassment lawsuits and discrimination lawsuits (these are *criminals*, mind you), and they’d lose every time.

      I think it’s better to strategically place hidden cameras all over and see if you can distinguish patterns of behavior, then just arrest based on how people act and who they came in contact with.

      I mean, unless you want to do away with profiling, which is cool too.

      My main concern is: if females like her are “straw purchasers”, how did they get hold of automatic weapons? Those are bound to the NFA and require a fairly sickening amount of paperwork and background checks, extra taxes and wait periods. In my mind, magically being able to get any of those weapons is criminal anyway, due to the ease with which she received them.

      This also leads me to believe that there are certain dealers who participate in illegal behavior. “Oh yeah, this little black girl came into the shop and she wanted 4 pistols. She handed me the money, so I said, ‘this isn’t odd in the least’, and gave her the pistols without filing the 4473, plus a box of ammo per gun, just because she had a cute smile.”

      Somehow… I don’t think so. Someone wasn’t doing their job, in addition to the girls doing something illegal.

      To wrap up this rant: if we enforced the laws we already have, as you had mentioned, it would curtail disreputable dealers and curb the outpouring of guns into felonious hands.

      • MrApple

        I agree.

  • Gregory Smith

    Too bad Boston Magazine doesn’t care about people who use guns in self-defense. In their liberal oasis, guns are only used by cops and criminals, freaking idiots.
    http://sellingthesecondamendment.com

    • Jakob Stagg

      That’s because saving lives is not a headline. Only the gore and magnitude of it is the only thing that sells advertising space. Truth? What’s that?

      • Gregory Smith

        It’s not just that, the media today except for Fox News doesn’t care about being balanced. When was the last time you saw a pro-fat, pro-smoking, much less pro-gun argument presented? This is why the liberal media is dying, they’re a bunch of useless parasites.

  • LeftShooter

    I would hope it’s not true, but this reporter seems like she was lead around by the nose without independent reporting in use. For example, these two sentences: (1) “It (the NRA) has even lobbied Congress to pass a law prohibiting the funding of studies that treat the urban gun epidemic as a public health crisis.”

    [Here the writer takes it as gospel that urban gun violence is a public health issue. Really? Guns have benefits (self-protection chief among them) and public health models do not consider benefits--for example, are the "benefits' of AIDS or hepatitis ever discussed? The public health model meme is disingenuous with some attributing it to Mayor Bloomberg and his self-financed Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. In any event, race, gangs and violence are real issues that require more work and analysis rather than just lazy disdain for gun owners and gun culture dressed up as public health research.]

    (2) “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.”

    [Here what the writer neglected to report is that the same poll found that 37% + 13% = 50% of respondents stated that they wanted gun laws kept as they are or made less strict, respectively--and both of those numbers are growing. Readers can see for themselves:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/1645/Guns.aspx ]
    Next time, Ms. Manos, please don’t drink the Kool-Aid before you write.

    • Jakob Stagg

      One of the major problems with public health studies is the medical industries’ standard of “evidence based medicine”. They are allowed to not release anything that adversely effects their product or service. It is not until after many people die unnecessarily, they are encouraged to be more forth coming. It happens over and over. It’s all about making money, not improving health.

  • Jakob Stagg

    Women can do not wrong. Therefore their contribution is ignored. Since crime and violence is attributed only to the existence of firearms, it is ignored that someone pulled the trigger. Why not look at them and learn something?

  • Jakob Stagg

    That picture is really no way to treat a FS-92.

  • Kent Greene

    Firearms incidents are paid primarily from property taxes, Link t5o You Tube mini-series:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ci5cFxi33c&list=PLfC1qkxuTjTvJZfbfnRSDkxG56McleVi8

  • Kayla Madison

    Its true that lipsticks are slowly killing the women and this I have noticed after watching this video: http://www.consumerhealthdigest.com/health-videos/is-your-lipstick-slowly-killing-you.html which helped me loT!!!!

  • Moolah Normal Page

    Support the Boston Gun Buy Back Program with the Keep the peace in our city apparel! @ http://www.teespring.com/keepthepeace