How women can help stop gun violence

By Ayanna Pressley
| NOVEMBER 13, 2014

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LIPSTICK organized a “beauty day” at Princey’s Hair Salon in Dorchester as part of its outreach efforts.

The results of midterm elections have left many despondent over the prospects for their favorite causes. Conservative news outlets are rubbing salt in the wound by trumpeting “Environmentalist groups suffer huge losses” and “Gun control candidates crushed.”

But those working to reduce shootings in our cities need not despair: The election results will actually make little difference.

Although public policy and legislative advocacy can be effective in tackling a range of social problems, it is not the only tool available. And when it comes to the gun violence plaguing our urban communities, it may not even be the most effective.

LIPSTICK, Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing, is taking a different approach. We believe cultural change is a key lever to reduce gun violence. LIPSTICK is modeled after public health campaigns like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which focus on changing behavior and cultural norms.

We are organizing an army of informed, confident, and civically engaged women and girls to convince each other to stop arming “impact players” — juveniles and felons doing most of the shooting on our streets. We support work toward public policy reforms, but it is not our primary focus.

Our principal focus is getting women to say, “I refuse to be used to take a life.” This, we believe, is the systems-level change we seek. If we can encourage young girls to refuse to hide their boyfriends’ guns in their backpacks, for example, we can break cycles of exploitation and violence, empower new leaders, change accepted norms for this generation and the next, and prevent thousands of guns from getting into the wrong hands —without passing one new law.

Prominent public health and safety leaders agree. The law enforcement experts at Crime Gun Solutions have spent decades investigating gun crimes, analyzing and researching crime-gun trace data, and identifying and targeting sources of crime guns to criminals. They have observed that women make up a significant percentage of persons acting as the “strawman” for illegal purchases. Their conclusion: “Empowering women to resist the pressures of spouses, male acquaintances, and relatives to engage in this illegal and potentially deadly practice would have a profound effect on reducing gun violence.”

The best testament to LIPSTICK’s impact comes from its scores of volunteer leaders. They’ve dubbed themselves “LIPSTICK Ladies” and made the campaign a part of who they are and what they do. One of the original LIPSTICK Ladies organized a Gospel retreat that featured the LIPSTICK campaign. Another leader, a college student, raised money to produce a video about LIPSTICK for her social network. A domestic violence counselor incorporates LIPSTICK in her work with survivors. A Mary Kay representative spreads LIPSTICK’s message and recruits new volunteers as she goes door-to-door selling cosmetics. A former gun smuggler shares her story with the media to warn young girls not to follow in her footsteps.

These women are flexing muscles they didn’t know they had. Using LIPSTICK’s tools, they’re rallying their peers, opinion leaders, policymakers, law enforcement officials and the media around a common agenda to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

It’s important we build on the momentum they’ve started.

Rampant gun violence impedes economic development, contributes to soaring health care costs and incarceration rates, creates whole communities of people suffering from traumatic stress disorders, and perpetuates cycles of violence, loss, grief, and despair.

LIPSTICK gives us the ability to impact youth gun violence and reduce the exploitation of women as gun mules, without depending on Congress. By adapting our strategies to the political realities of our day and focusing on cultural change as well as legislative measures, we can achieve the outcomes we all agree Boston’s children and families deserve.

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A LIPSTICK public service ad.

Ayanna Pressley is a Boston city councilor at-large and board member of Operation LIPSTICK.