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?
The idea behind Operation LIPSTICK is simple, perhaps unrealistically so: a public health campaign, along the lines of the old “Just Say No” drug ads or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, aimed at making the trafficking of firearms a social taboo. Robinson believes that educating women about gun trafficking will change how they act when faced with the prospect of holding, hiding, or purchasing a gun. These kinds of campaigns are often mounted to prevent women from falling victim to social ills like sex trafficking or domestic violence, Robinson notes, but women’s involvement with the gun trade has never been given the attention it needs. “We’ve got to do something about the way these women are being used and exploited to play this role,” she says.
To do this, Robinson has adopted many of the proposals put forth by David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and a board member of Citizens for Safety. Hemenway has written a flurry of papers since the Newtown shootings pushing for public awareness campaigns about gun safety, arguing that they can change the way we think about guns. “As women have helped reduce drunk and reckless driving by men, women can mobilize to help reduce firearm violence,” he wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association this past April.
The LIPSTICK program “helps energize the community. It shows them that they have a real role,” he says. “No woman should be put in the situation where they’re asked to commit a felony and purchase a gun for their boyfriend. It should be so overwhelmingly clear that the social norms should not allow that.”
When Robinson decided to launch Operation LIPSTICK, she recruited Ruth Rollins, a domestic violence counselor, and Kim Odom, a pastor and well-known local advocate for homicide victims and their families. Both women have lost sons to violence, and both say it was the unique message of the LIPSTICK campaign that compelled them to take part. “A lot of people do things for the guys in our community, but we don’t talk about the women” and the impact that gun violence plays in their lives, Rollins says.
Odom and Rollins have hosted events at community centers and hair salons throughout the city over the past year, drawing the support of the mayor’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety. Robinson, who’s now working on bringing training sessions to New York and Oakland, notes that the issue isn’t limited to women in urban centers. The Columbine shooters had a female classmate purchase their guns at a gun show. And police say the man who set a fire in his upstate New York home only to ambush and kill two firefighters who arrived on site obtained his guns through the 24-year-old daughter of his neighbor. It’s a national problem, and Robinson believes it will eventually become a national campaign.
In her sessions around Boston, Robinson says she often asks women to raise their hands if they’ve lost someone to gun violence, only to see the entire room lift their arms. She tells them that their decisions can influence the safety of the community. “In many cases,” she says, most fail to realize that they are “unwittingly contributing to the violence that they’re already suffering from.”
Given her lofty goals, LIPSTICK can sometimes come off as lip service. When talking about gun crimes in this city, simply administering platitudes fails to acknowledge the dire realities that these women face. If a woman is in a position to hide, hold, or purchase a gun for someone else, her safety is, by default, already at risk. Asking her to say no can in many cases create a more dangerous scenario than saying nothing at all.
“We’ve got to think of a way that a woman, when considering buying a gun for someone else, would view that as morally reprehensible as child porn,” says Chipman, who acknowledges the challenges that Robinson must surmount. “How do you empower a woman with the confidence that she knows that ‘no’ is a complete sentence?”
On a warm summer afternoon in late August, a small group of women gathered in a meeting room at the Mattapan library. Melissa was among them.
“I never knew these types of groups occurred in the city,” she would say later. “It’s like they occur more in the suburbs than anything.” What she saw around her was not what she expected, she added. “I expected the angry mob. I expected a group of moms mad that their children were taken away from them or that a relative of theirs was lost to street violence.” Instead, she was impressed by an atmosphere of serious civility. “If we handle everything calmly and peacefully, maybe you’ll get a better result,” she said.
After the workshop began, Rollins and Odom outlined the crux of the LIPSTICK campaign. “Kim brings the church background,” Rollins says. “I bring more of the street background. I work with women where they’re at.” They compared gun violence to an outbreak of salmonella: If people got sick from a bad batch of peanut butter, the FDA would work back through the production chain until they found the source of the contamination. “Why don’t we respond in kind when a child dies from a gunshot?” they asked.
They mapped out the “Iron Pipeline,” a network of shady gun dealers and straw purchasers, and described how women are used to purchase weapons from out-of-state gun shops—say, in Maine or New Hampshire, where such purchases are less restricted—and can face jail time for holding or hiding a firearm.