Women: The Newest Weapon in the Fight Against Gun Violence

A young organization in Boston works to prevent sisters, girlfriends, and wives from becoming unwitting accomplices to shootings, and spreads awareness in the process. 
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Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Jessica Davis’s oldest son spent ten years in jail for shooting another man. She herself was questioned by police over a gun that, to this day, she believes her daughter bought and hid for a boyfriend.* So for Davis, joining Boston’s “Operation LIPSTICK,” which launched in April 2012, was personal.

Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings is the product of a partnership between Boston’s Citizens for Safety and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, with grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice. Leaders of the organization say they aim to educate women about the dangers of “buying, concealing, storing, and holding” guns on behalf of men in their lives who, because of felony records, are prohibited from purchasing firearms themselves. Buying a gun for such an individual is called “straw purchasing,” and it’s illegal.

The chief harm of straw purchasing, of course, is putting a gun straight from the purchaser’s hands into those of an individual who intends to use it to commit a crime. But straw purchasing also plays a significant role in the gunrunning industry: A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms study found that 46 percent of all firearms trafficking investigations between 1996 and 1998 involved straw purchasers. The same study found that 18 percent of straw purchasers were girlfriends or spouses. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2012 that the University of Chicago Crime Lab studies suggest women purchase nearly a fourth of the guns that are recovered in Chicago crimes within a year of purchase.

Across the country women are being arrested for straw purchasing. Stevie Marie Vigil, a 22-year-old Colorado woman, was indicted in August of knowingly transferring a firearm to a convicted felon, who used the gun to kill Colorado prison chief Tom Clements. Vigil now faces a possible ten-year sentence in federal prison. Last month in Pennsylvania, Megan Ryan Boyle, another 22-year-old woman, was charged with purchasing guns for her boyfriend, also a convicted felon. She and 21 year-old Stacie Dawson,who is also from Pennsylvania and was charged with buying two handguns illegally for her boyfriend, are among the first to face new stiffer penalties of up to five years in prison for straw purchasing under their state’s new “Brad Fox Law,” named after a Philadelphia-area police officer who was shot and killed by an illegally purchased gun. And in 2008 when Chicago police arrested Ohmari L. Sengstacke, a convicted felon found outside then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s home, the .40-caliber handgun stowed in his car turned out to have been purchased by his wife.

Some women may be unaware that buying a gun for a boyfriend, brother, or cousin could destroy their own lives with jail time or the homicide of someone they know and love.

An Operation LIPSTICK activist leads a demonstration at a Boston
hair salon, tracing the question "Where Does the Gun Come From"
from gun dealer to straw purchaser to shooter to victim. (Dina Kraft)

“I didn’t even know what straw purchasing was,” said Davis. But she found out quickly when the police found a handgun under her car and asked her to testify in court about its origins. Today, Davis and her daughter give differing accounts of the gun’s origin. Davis’s daughter, now 22, admits to having bought a gun in her teenage years, but says it was for her own protection—not a straw purchase—and it wasn’t the one the police found: that one “was from something going on in the area,” stashed under the car by someone else. Davis continues to think her daughter is covering for someone.

Inner-city women like Davis are painfully aware of the toll of gun violence. Young inner-city men—their sons, brothers, and boyfriends—are the most common victims of gun-related homicides in America.  A church yard near my home in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, is filled with flags representing the number of people killed or wounded in gun violence in the Boston area so far this year. Victims of gun violence in the Boston area this year alone far outnumber the casualties of the Boston Marathon bombing.

The LIPSTICK organizers note their focus on women is a solution that does not require legislation, which even in the wake of the Newtown shootings has so far proved impossible to pass.

Straw purchasing is becoming more of a target for other organizations and for law enforcement as well. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, has partnered with the The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in a campaign with the message , “Buy a gun for someone who can't ... buy yourself 10 years in jail.” The ATF includes information on recognizing straw purchasers in online trainings for police officers, gun retailers, as well as at the U.S. gun industry’s largest annual trade show: the SHOT show.

Boston’s Citizens for Safety, the roughly 10,000-member organization responsible for launching LIPSTICK, debuted its “Where Do the Guns Come From” project in 2007, but LIPSTICK was borne from its leaders’ “ah-ha” moment a year and a half ago, when they connected the dots between studies that showed women are frequently recruited to illegally buy guns with similar anecdotal evidence they were hearing in the field.

“These women are sometimes in dysfunctional relationships where there is a power imbalance or exploitation or threatening,” said Curtis Ellis, the communications director for Citizens for Safety. “Or they are simply poor and do not understand what they are being asked to do is illegal and can land them in prison and could be directly responsible for putting guns on the streets that can kill their own family members.”

Young women can feel they are buying the guns for their boyfriend, brother or cousin as a tool for mutual protection, particularly if they live in an area where guns are commonplace, said Garen Wintemute, a professor at University of California-Davis and director of the university’s Violence Prevention Research Program. For several years he did research at gun shows wearing a hidden camera. “One learns very quickly [that] straw purchases are often done by women,” he said.

 At one gun show, Wintemute witnessed a woman, accompanied by a man, get turned away by a gun dealer after he asked her a few basic questions about the weapon she was looking for and she was speechless.

“The manager said, ‘Get out of here, this is a straw purchase,’” said Wintemute, who then saw the same woman, the male companion still at her side, buy a gun from a different dealer ten minutes later.

“Looking at our records anecdotally and empirically it is young men doing the shooting,” Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, said. But there is a problem, he said, in the “small subset of the female public who are willing to take a role in obtaining those firearms or holding on to them, knowing they are less likely to be frisked, subject [to] a search warrant or to catch the eye of an officer.”

So why has this issue largely flown under the radar until now? Possibly because from 2003 until 2010 the Tiahrt Amendments, which were passed by Congress with pressure from the gun lobby, prohibited the ATF from releasing information, even to researchers, on where a gun used in a crime had come from.  The Centers for Disease Control have also been prohibited from researching firearms-related injuries since 1996. But some change lies ahead. In one of the 23 executive actions President Obama issued after the Newton school shooting, he directed the C.D.C. “to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.”  

At a recent Operation LIPSTICK meeting, Kim Odom, a pastor who has become a prominent anti-violence activist in Boston, launched a training workshop by reading a passage from her son’s journal.

“It’s a shame that some people get killed or shot every day. What we really need is peace,” wrote 13-year-old Steven Odom shortly before he was killed in a shooting near his home in 2007.

The dozen women and some men in the room shook their heads. Many have lost a son, brother, or friend to shots fired in surrounding neighborhoods.

 “What Steven was articulating is a public health epidemic,” Odom said. And just like any public health epidemic, she said, the source of the problem must be identified.

After every shooting, Odom tells the workshop participants, there’s a question that must be asked: “Where did the gun come from?” Odom and another leader, Ruth Rollins, who also lost a son in a shooting, have been asking women to tweet that question after every shooting in the area, and to spread it in a cell phone video. They want this question to go viral.

They spread their message where women can be found, from churches, hair and nail salons and community events and even domestic violence shelters. They exchange stories, hold workshops, and ask women to sign pledges to never illegally buy or hide guns. One of their members is a Mary Kay lady who spreads the word as she peddles cosmetics and facial cleansers.

Outreach to women is “an incredibly useful and innovative way of tackling one part of the [gun] problem,” said David Hemenway, a Harvard School of Public Health professor who directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and wrote the book Private Guns, Public Health. He compared the initiative to past public health campaigns to reduce reckless and drunk driving. “It needs to be made clear, like in ‘Friends don’t let Friends Drive Drunk,’ that a good boyfriend does not ask you to do things that can destroy your whole life.” 

The comparison to anti-drunk driving campaigns is an apt one. It was another women’s group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that led the charge in that campaign as well.

The women of LIPSTICK may have a long way to go, but officials and organizers in Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Bay Area have begun contacting them for advice on setting up similar programs.

Christy Taylor, a 55-year-old paralegal, felt fragile at the LIPSTICK workshop. She would pause to dab her eyes as they welled with tears. She had just marked nine years since her eldest son was gunned down at the age of 21. And his birthday was coming up.

“I came to make a difference in our communities for our children who are survivors,” she said. Her son left behind a daughter named Jadaya. She is now 14 and wants to start an organization for kids like her and call it “Where is My Dad?” 

Taylor said she plans to bring Jadaya to the next Operation LIPSTICK meeting.

That fits in with Odom’s plans. As she told the group, “We are going to have to build an army.”


* The names of some individuals in this story have been changed.

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Dina Kraft is a journalist based in Boston.

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