ARUN RATH, HOST:

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.

Member station WBUR's Fred Bever reports on a new initiative in Boston that's calling attention to the role women play in illegal gun trade and the consequences they face.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: 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 make a straw buy, purchasing a firearm that's not for their own use, but for men who then use it in a crime. Or they may hide a man's gun or sell it for him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I saw cars, I saw bling, jewelry, money, the nicest clothes.

BEVER: This Boston resident knows the story. She was a teenager when she met a man, an older man, who, as she says, was in the life. And she was impressed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 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?

BEVER: In her 30s now, the woman asked not to be named, fearing repercussions. 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.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 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.

RUTH ROLLINS: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Good morning.

BEVER: But today, she's at the Dorchester Public Library for the monthly meeting of Operation LIPSTICK. That's an acronym for Ladies Involved In Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings.

RATH: Ruth Rollins, who works in a Roxbury domestic violence shelter, leads the workshop. Like many here, Rollins has direct experience with gun violence, the still-unsolved murder of her son six years ago. Now, she calls herself a LIPSTICK lady. On a map, she charts the gun-running routes that bring crime guns to Massachusetts cities.

ROLLINS: So this is what we call the iron pipeline, how guns are trafficked into our community.

BEVER: Rollins says many young women caught up in the illegal gun economy are numb to what they are really doing. Sometimes they are tempted by things as basic as baby diapers. Domestic violence is often at the heart of it, she says: The man's control over the woman includes coercing her into the illegal gun trade. Rollins says social workers, police and prosecutors should recognize the dynamic and respond.

ROLLINS: Right now, if I got caught, used the guns, you know what, you're just - 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 the women that were fleeing or that was in abusive relationships. It's the same as domestic violence.

BEVER: Operation LIPSTICK got off the ground in 2012 after founder Nancy Robinson saw research that, almost as an aside, documented women's disproportionate role in the illegal gun trade. Now, LIPSTICK volunteers are responding with a robust awareness campaign online and on the streets. They want people to take a hard look at the consequences of the illegal gun trade.

NANCY ROBINSON: There are consequences. They go to jail. Their neighborhoods are unsafe. People are traumatized and devastated. There are funerals every weekend.

BEVER: Robinson says more than 2,500 people have signed a pledge promising not to buy, hide or hold guns for someone else. The Boston woman we met earlier has signed that pledge. She's out of the illegal gun network, she says, but she still feels its tug.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: An old client, I will say, contacted me last night and was like, look, I need to get rid of this gun. And I'm like, oh.

BEVER: She thought about the quick $5,000 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 student loans, the honest example she wants to set for her kids.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do I regret it? No, I don't. Do I wish? Yeah, I kind of wish. But I can't go back.

BEVER: The next day, she was back to working with the LIPSTICK ladies. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever.

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