Most firearms in the U.S. start out in a state of perfect legality, sold by a manufacturer to a federally licensed dealer. But somewhere along the way, some of them cross the line and become what are called "crime guns."
In Boston, a new initiative is calling attention to the role women play in the illegal gun trade, and the consequences they face.
Intersection Of Domestic Violence And Gun Trafficking
Federal statistics show that most gun crimes are committed by men. But research also shows that women can play an outsized role in the marketplace for illegal guns. Often, they purchase — in what's called a "straw buy" — a firearm that's not for their own use, but for men who then use it in a crime.
"I saw cars, I saw bling, jewelry, money, the nicest clothes," explained a Boston resident who knows the story well. She was a teenager when she met an older man who, as she says, was "in the life." And she was impressed. "I was young. So that's where my mindset was. I wanted to be a part of that. At a young age who's going to say no?"
In her 30s now, the woman asked not to be named, fearing repercussions for her and her family. She says about two years into their relationship her then-boyfriend asked her to hold a package for him: a semi-automatic, plus ammo, wrapped in rags.
Her involvement with illegal guns quickly escalated and diversified. Always, though, her boyfriend controlled the money.
"It turned from just having gifts and getting money and being supplied with all the marijuana I wanted, to having all this money because I did a job for him," she said.
She does care now. That's why she recently attended the monthly meeting of Operation LIPSTICK at the Dorchester public library. LIPSTICK is an acronym for Ladies Involved In Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings.
Ruth Rollins, who works in a Roxbury domestic violence safe house, leads workshops for the organization. Like many who speak at the events, she has direct experience with gun violence: her son's still-unsolved murder six years ago. Now she calls herself a "LIPSTICK Lady."
"It's a business to traffic firearms in from surrounding states: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Georgia and Virginia," she explained at a recent workshop.
There were a few young women in the audience, but it was mostly adults. Rollins says many of the young women caught up in the illegal gun economy — and sometimes their parents — are numb to what they are really doing. They let themselves be sweet-talked into it. They are tempted by money or drugs. Even things as basic as baby diapers can be an incentive to handle a crime gun.
Often, Rollins says, domestic violence is at the heart of it. The man's power and control over the woman includes coercing her into the illegal gun trade. Rollins says she wants social service workers, prosecutors and police to recognize that reality.
"Right now if I got caught, used the guns, it's you know, 'I know it's your man's, if you want to flip on him we'll get a deal.' But what about having services in place? I'm not saying you don't get accountable for it. But the same services they set up for women that are fleeing or are in abusive relationships. It's the same as domestic violence," Rollins said.
Nancy Robinson got Operation LIPSTICK off the ground in 2012 after seeing research that, almost as an aside, documented women's disproportionate role in the illegal gun trade.
"We're really the first campaign to address this intersection between domestic violence and gun trafficking," Robinson explained.
Now, LIPSTICK volunteers are responding by knocking on doors, visiting beauty salons, speaking at churches and holding monthly leadership workshops. The group is also launching a social media and billboard campaign aimed at young women.
"These women can start to connect the dots and understand that there are consequences to providing these guns," Robinson said. "They go to jail. Their neighborhoods are unsafe. People are traumatized and devastated. There are funerals every weekend."
The group's effort is gaining wider recognition. The U.S. Department of Justice has provided a modest grant and the Suffolk County District Attorney's office and Boston Police are sending representatives to LIPSTICK's community meetings. Social service workers and the Harvard School of Public Health are also looking at the issue.
The most concrete evidence that the lipstick message is resonating? Robinson says more than 2,500 people, mostly women, have signed a pledge promising not to buy, hide or hold guns for someone else.
"Just that little bit of awareness can make a huge difference in the lives of these women," she said.
It does seem to be making a difference in the life of the Boston resident we met earlier. She got out of the illegal gun network several years ago, but says she still feels its tug.
"An old 'client,' I will say, contacted me last night and was like, 'Look I need to get rid of this gun.' And here it is, a sawed-off shotgun next to another type of shotgun and then there's this Uzi."
The pictures of the weapons came via social media, she says. She thought about the money she could make, the gifts she could buy her children. But then she thought about the life she's building on the right side of the law, her studies, the honest example she wants to set for her kids.
"I'm like, I just missed out on $5,000 for about 15 minutes worth of work. Do I regret it? No, I don't. Do I wish? Yeah I kind of wish. But I can't go back."
She deleted most of the pictures — keeping one, she says, to remind her of the life she'd left behind. The next day she was in Dorchester, back with the LIPSTICK ladies.
This segment aired on January 2, 2014.