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?

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.”