Whenever there is a street shooting, we seldom ask where the gun came from. Nor how it wound up in the hands of the person who used it to kill or maim someone else.
While I was in Boston this past year researching urban gun violence, I encountered an organization that has taken a novel approach to trying to reduce gun homicides in the inner city.
Their focus is not on the men doing most of the shooting but on their women accomplices. Women who buy guns for men who can't because they have criminal records. That is called a "straw purchase."
Women hide guns in their homes, cars, and on their persons for men because women are less likely to arouse suspicion from the police and get searched.
We don't have hard data to show how much of a problem this is. What we know is that according to a 2000 report by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 46 percent of all firearms trafficking investigations from 1996 to 1998 involved straw purchases. Of these, 18% of the time the buyer was the girlfriend or the spouse of the real buyer. Other studies have shown a disproportionate number of women linked to crime guns.
There are media reports of women around the country being arrested for straw buying. A Boston nonprofit called Citizens for Safety began targeting women as a way to reduce gun homicides in inner city neighborhoods.
"Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop To Inner-City Killings," or "LIPSTICK," is a group of women, many of whom have lost loved ones to gun violence. They go out into the communities where street shootings are the worst and give workshops -- at nail salons, community centers, battered women's shelters, and churches. They break down how straw purchasing works. The idea is to educate women about the dangers of buying or hiding guns for men in their lives. They could go to prison and lose their children. They are contributing to the bloodshed. "Some of them don't know that what they are doing is a crime," says Kim Odom, a pastor and LIPSTICK organizer. Her 13-year-old son Steven was shot and killed in 2007 a block from their home as he walked back from playing basketball.
You can tell a woman she shouldn't buy or hide guns. But if she's in a relationship with a violent man refusing to do so could put her life at risk.
Ruth Rollins, another LIPSTICK member who works at a battered women's shelter in Boston says just as with victims of domestic violence, the women who are being exploited to buy and hide guns and want to stop need safe places to go. Her son Warren Daniel Hairston, 21, was shot and killed the same year as Rollins' son.
Some of the women who've attended workshops talked about how they or female relatives used to hide guns for men.
This is one small community-based program. It would be foolish to suggest that it could stop all gun homicides.
The goal is to help change behavior that helps reduce gun homicides over time. "This is an organized response in the community to stop shooting in the streets," says Executive Director Nancy Robinson.
Robinson wants to establish a program in Oakland and has met with Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.
The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the organization $50,000 and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, a big advocate, donated another $5,000.
Yet the question is, how does a program like this measure results? How do you know when a woman has decided not to hide a gun?
David Hemenway, a professor of public health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, a leading national firearms expert, is on the Citizens for Safety board. He admits it will be hard to measure the program's success. However, Hemenway says LIPSTICK's focus on women's role in straw purchasing makes sense from a public health perspective. "It's an area that no one has really looked at before and there's very little research out there," Hemenway says. "This is not "the" answer. It's a small part but it's an important part."
To learn more about the LIPSTICK program, go to http://www.operationlipstick.org/operation-lipstick/