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?

By | Boston Magazine |


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.”

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.

There was an undercurrent of frustration in the room. In Boston, it’s impossible to discuss crime without addressing injustices of race and class; hundreds of gun-related homicides in the city’s poorest neighborhoods remain unsolved. While officials responded in force to the marathon bombings, there has been little public attention paid to the spike in shootings since then, 145 and rising at press time, according to the website Blackstonian. Many women I spoke to later pointed out that the alleged murderer of a white South Boston resident, Amy Lord, was arrested within a few days, while whoever gunned down three women of color in their car on Harlem Street a year prior still walks free.

“With the marathon bombings and Amy Lord and even Aaron Hernandez, [the police] are getting information,” Odom told me later. “They say the reason why we have so many unsolved murders is because people don’t talk. But it’s hard for us to really buy into that. You mean to tell me that there’s all these unsolved murders and there’s no information?”

As Rollins and Odom wrap up each session, they ask the women to sign a pledge promising that they won’t hold, hide, or buy guns. They tell them to take out their phones and text their friends a link to an anti-gun-trafficking site, and implore them to ask, “Where did the gun come from?”—a Citizens for Safety slogan—after every shooting.

Yet these simple measures only begin to address the complex ways in which gun violence seeps into other issues that women face, particularly poverty, domestic violence, human trafficking, or child abuse. The Q & A sessions I witnessed after each presentation seethed with emotion, but they didn’t talk about the factors that draw women into the gun trade in the first place. Right now, the sessions rely on a video of one woman gun trafficker sharing her story, instead of having women like Melissa speak to the groups. “The biggest challenge will be to identify those voices, those people who are willing to come forward and admit that they had done something wrong,” Chipman says. LeAnne Graham, a 28-year-old from Dorchester, told me the workshop she attended felt like a “clap campaign,” mere cheerleading. For a program like this to really take hold, she says, “it’s got to be at a moral level, and it didn’t seem like it was addressed.”

David Hemenway, the Harvard School of Public Health professor whose research provides a backbone for much of the LIPSTICK program, concedes that there are limits to what public health campaigns can accomplish. “We’re interested in the community and what we can do about that at the community level rather than the individual,” he admits. “It’s not like we’re not interested in the individual, but the focus is on populations.”

Robinson contends they’re just getting started. “This message needs to be integrated into all the violence-prevention work already being done,” she says, adding that LIPSTICK is bringing its training sessions into domestic violence shelters and to women involved in sexual trafficking. “If you’re talking about violence-prevention work in the urban communities, you’re talking about gun trafficking and straw purchasing. Right now they’re not talking about it that way, but they need to be.”

Rollins, too, acknowledges where things now fall short. “I know that there are a lot more layers with it, but it’s just the beginning,” she says. “We’re getting people involved, and a lot of these women don’t have faith, they don’t have support, they don’t have nothing.”

Ultimately, though, the impetus to change has to be individual, and personal. For Melissa, it came in the fall of 2011. She was in an abusive relationship with a long-term partner. After another violent episode, their 12-year-old daughter came to her and told her she wanted a gun. “She wanted to get a gun so that she could protect us. So that she could protect me from him,” Melissa says.

Within months, Melissa had left her partner. She moved into the Elizabeth Stone House women’s shelter, where she met a domestic violence counselor—Ruth Rollins—who suggested that she attend a LIPSTICK meeting.

Now she writes notes to herself whenever she hears about a shooting on the news, and asks about the origins of the gun. And she’s working to ensure that her daughter learns an entirely different lesson about gun trafficking than she did as a teen. “I don’t want her to think the only way for you to handle a problem is using a gun,” she says. “If my child gets hold of a gun, I can’t blame anybody else.”

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