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Operation LIPSTICK educates women about perils of gun trafficking

Posted by Anne Steele  April 22, 2013 01:01 PM

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Concerned that some women are being coerced into illegal activity, Citizens for Safety, a Jamaica Plain non-profit organization that aims to stop gun trafficking, has launched a program called Operation LIPSTICK.

LIPSTICK, which stands for Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings, seeks to educate women about the dangers and consequences of hiding, holding, and purchasing guns for felons and others who are not able to buy them for themselves. In some cases, women act as gun buyers, or “straw purchasers.”

“We felt that if these women were being coerced and pressured and sweet-talked into buying these guns, that there was much more we could do in the way of intervention and prevention,” said Nancy Robinson, executive director of Citizens for Safety.

The launch of LIPSTICK, which hosted its first workshop in September, coincides with a national effort to crack down on straw purchasing.

Despite urging from President Obama, Congress recently failed to act on stricter gun legislation, such as background checks, in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Although there is no data on how many women are involved in straw purchasing, studies have indicated that it is not uncommon for women to be asked to buy and store guns for those who are not able to pass a background check, Robinson said.

A few months ago, a man who had summoned New York firefighters shot four of them, two fatally, when they arrived. In that case, a 24-year old woman was indicted on charges that she bought the guns for the shooter.

In another recent case, a 22-year old Colorado woman was charged with purchasing a gun and giving it to a man who used it to kill the Colorado prisons chief.

Robinson said that most people fail to ask themselves "Where did the gun come from?" when there is a shooting.

“Women,” she answered. “Women are easy prey for gun traffickers.”

In partnership with the local district attorney's office and other agencies, Citizens for Safety offers one- to two-hour-long workshops to inform women about the consequences of gun trafficking, including the possibility of jail time. Operation LIPSTICK uses peer-to-peer education and leadership development models to educate women and give them a chance to share their experiences with one another, as well as with women who have lost their children to gun violence.

“It's a win-win,” said Robinson. “We're not talking about locking women up. We're talking about preventing.”

Citizens for Safety was established in the 1990s, after a rising number of homicides. It was the first organization in the country to pioneer a gun buy-back, taking about 3,000 guns off the streets over a few years. It launched a campaign called 'Where Did the Gun Come From?’ which aims to raise awareness about trafficking. The agency is headquartered in Boston, but its programs have been adopted by organizations in five other states.

So far, LIPSTICK workshops have been held at Rosie's Place, which serves poor and homeless women, and through My Life My Choice, an initiative to reach women who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

In addition, Citizens for Safety is asking women to sign a pledge on its website that they will not buy, hide, hold, or carry guns for someone else.

The group has trained two women to lead the workshops: Kim Odom, a field director who lost her 13-year-old son, Steven, to gun violence in 2007, and Ruth Rollins, the women's support group leader, who also lost a son to gun violence. Robinson said that each of the women brings a unique perspective to the workshops. Odom emphasizes the serious consequences of assisting in gun trafficking, and Rollins “knows instinctively who's hurting, who needs a hug, and who needs to be pushed a little more,” she said.

Rollins described the workshops as “very healing and educational.” When women become embroiled in gun trafficking, “I look at it as everyone loses -- even the perpetrator who does the shooting,” she said.

Both Rollins and Robinson said the response from the first few workshops was positive.

The women “leave feeling energized, like they have a purpose [and will] really make a difference in their lives and in the lives of the people they care about,” said Robinson. “We want people to leave there deputized.”

Ann Wilkinson, an attendee at one of the workshops, said that learning the consequences of holding a gun for someone was “jaw-dropping.”

“It's awesome that they're doing that work and putting a spotlight on it in the community,” she said.

LIPSTICK plans to hold another workshop soon. Robinson said any women who are interested can contact the group, via the website www.citizensforsafety.org.

Rollins said she hopes the workshops will evolve, so that the group can extend help to women who want to leave a situation that puts them at risk.

“My goal is to stay with this until the end,” said Rollins. “[I want women] to have a safe house when they are ready to leave. I want to make that a choice.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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