Update: This story was recently awarded the Donald Robinson Award for Investigative Journalism.
This summer I worked with Contently and StudioAtGawker to produce a long-form investigative story about gun trafficking on the so-called Iron Pipeline, a stretch of Interstate 95 that connects several east coast cities. The report was released in conjunction with the launch of Contently Dot Org, a not-for-profit foundation that supports investigative journalism.
For two months our team - editor Brad Hamilton, data designer Sam Petulla, and Contently's Sam Slaughter - conducted research, interviewed sources and experts, and crafted a story that attempts to humanize the realities of gun trafficking. I was the primary writer and reporter.
Story by Dan Patterson; Edited by Brad Hamilton
Tiana never saw herself as a killer.
The daughter of a prostitute, she grew up in an inner city housing project surrounded by crack cocaine, day-time shootings and illicit money making. Hustling was in her family’s blood.
For Tiana, who was determined not to follow her mother into the sex trade, guns became the hustle. Buying weapons for the men in her life — a practice that police call straw purchasing — was easy money.
“I hung out a lot with guys because I didn’t figure that women could teach me anything,” she told me. “Guys taught me … to deal with the street. And part of that was guns.”
Tiana’s first taste of the trade came at age 12 when a man she knew asked if she would transport a duffel bag stuffed with semi-automatic pistols. “He said, ‘If you carry these over there, we’ll pay you.’ I said, ‘Fine… no problem.’” She spent what she earned on crack.
Despite her drug habit, Tiana gained a reputation as a reliable go-between, taking in and delivering weapons for men she knew from the neighborhood. “You would always carry the firearm because you were a woman and [the police] didn’t have a right to search you,” she said.
She did her first buy at 16 when a boyfriend with a felony conviction asked her to purchase a weapon for him at a gun store. She agreed to help and the sale went off smoothly.
Tiana quickly saw the potential to earn real money. When someone needed a weapon, she made it happen. She shopped at gun stores, being careful not to visit the same place twice, and would fill out application paperwork using her real name and home address. [Tiana agreed to speak to me on the condition that her name and identifying details not be revealed in this story.]
No one stopped her or questioned what she was doing.
Straw buying is the norm for countless women in circumstances similar to Tiana’s, according to police and federal agents. Officials describe a small army of young, impressionable women, often from marginalized communities, who play an instrumental role in the flow of black-market handguns from Southern states, where weak firearms laws make buying weapons relatively easy, to Eastern Seaboard cities along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Typically, the real buyer would have chosen the weapon in advance and arranged as many of the details as possible. After Tiana acquired the gun, she would hand it over and pocket between $100 and $1,000. Payment was in cash or drugs or both. She did so many deals during her teens that today Tiana finds it impossible to estimate how often it occurred. “Countless times — there isn’t a number.”
“It was something I did because that’s what I saw,” she said.”I lived to die, die to live. You went to jail for whatever consequences you got and that was just a part of life. That was the street.”
This so-called Iron Pipeline fosters a furious trade in illicit, lethal weapons.
A Contently.org data analysis shows the five biggest Pipeline provider states — Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia — are responsible for nearly half the guns used in crimes in Washington, D.C. and a significant percentage of those in New York, New Jersey and other recipient states.
Experts point out that the straw purchase, often made by women without prior convictions, effectively moves a gun into a shadowy illegal market, where the weapon might change hands numerous times before being used in a crime. By obfuscating ownership history, the straw buyer makes solving homicides and other gun crimes more difficult.
The analysis is based on trace reports from 2012 and 2013 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which tries to track down the point-of-sale origin of weapons that police recover following crimes using serial numbers and other information. It’s the only data on the subject the agency has released.
During those two years, 8,155 guns seized from criminals in the District of Columbia and the most common Iron Pipeline destination states — Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — originated from the five top Pipeline supplier states, the statistics show.
In Washington, 836 of 1,686 crime guns were tracked back to those five source states, which is 49.6 percent. In New York state, the figures were 3,455 of 9,634, which is 35.6 percent. In big cities, the numbers could be even higher. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said that in 2011 90 percent of the traceable guns came from out of state, with the majority arriving via the Pipeline.
In supplying the Iron Pipeline, experts says, women from Virginia, the Carolinas and other source states are helping arm drug dealers and gang members with weapons used to kill and maim and therefore bear an indirect responsibility for violence on the streets of New York, Washington, Baltimore and Boston.
“It’s a big part of how guns get into the hands of criminals,” said Joseph Bisbee, a veteran agent of the ATF, which in June revealed that nearly 50 percent of all crime weapons it has successfully traced were illegally diverted by straw purchases.
“These women are trying to improve their lot in life. But they get manipulated. They tend to rationalize what they’re doing, like it’s not that big of a deal. They don’t associate filling out paperwork with providing a criminal with a gun. They don’t think two or three steps down the road.”
The link between gun purchases by Southern women and murders in East Coast hubs
had been known for some time in law-enforcement circles, but the connection got public recognition in the fine print of a lawsuit in 2010, when New York City sued 27 gun dealers from Pipeline provider states.
At the urging of Bloomberg, an outspoken critic both of gun lobbyists and the ATF, the city claimed that irresponsible weapon sales put store owners on the hook for what happened after a gun left the shop and found its way into criminal hands.
And in collecting evidence against stores such as Mickalis Pawn Shop in Summerville, South Carolina, which allegedly sold 49 guns used in crimes in the Big Apple, it hired private investigators to set up stings. They knew just what to do — they sent in female undercovers to pose as straw buyers. Some stores followed the law and refused to sell weapons to them. Those that looked the other way became defendants in the city’s civil action, which was settled when the stores agreed to be overseen by an outside monitor.
But that positive outcome barely slowed the torrent of guns coming up the Pipeline.
Last year New York City announced the biggest gun bust in state history — 254 weapons were seized and 19 people arrested following an NYPD undercover probe of a massive trafficking operation. The media focused on a tip that sparked the investigation: an aspiring rapper who helped broker the sales at his Brooklyn music studio unwittingly clued in cops by posting photos of the weapons on Instagram and boasted of “packing more guns than the Air Force.”
Some of the guns seized by the NYPD last year. Photo credit: AP
What got less attention was the role of a female friend of the gang’s leader, Walter Walker. Iesha Carmichael, a 26-year-old he knew from the tiny town of Sanford, North Carolina had a clean record, which allowed her to apply for 10 handgun permits from the local sheriff in February 2013. They cost $5 each. She then went on a suspicious shopping spree.
There was no doubt, however, that Walker was the real buyer of the weapons she picked out. Carmichael went so far as to call him and ask for his preferences. “She was on the phone with him while she was in the gun store asking specifically what kind of firearms he wanted,” said a law-enforcement source familiar with the case, noting that Carmichael got paid in marijuana for her assistance. Carmichael was convicted and spent six months in prison.
The culture and psychology that ropes women into becoming straw buyers baffles Bisbee, who spent more than a decade working for an ATF gun interdiction unit in Washington, D.C., before moving to an agency gang detail in Seattle two years ago. He dealt with numerous weapons traffickers who demonstrated a powerful sway over women, kingpins such as Garfield Headlam, who ran a ring in Norfolk, Virginia, that sent cheap handguns to customers in the nation’s capital.
“He used as many women as he could back when Virginia was a one handgun-per-month state,” Bisbee said. “They thought he was … I don’t want to say charming. But there are people who have that personality where they can talk women into doing anything. A lot of times they wouldn’t even be compensated.”
He said female buyers typically have little appreciation for the consequences of buying a gun for someone else, a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“It’s hard to figure how they get manipulated into buying a gun for a person who is not a good person. Even when they get paid, they’re not getting paid a lot — like $20 or $50. I’ve had women tell me,`He just asked me to do it.’ The way they see it is, if a friend asks you to do something for them, why wouldn’t you do it?”
There is little doubt about the dangers posed by guns sold by straw buyers.
A Contently.org data analysis showed that in 2012 and 2013, 1,206 murders involved Pipeline-supplied crime guns traced from the five core states to the five most common recipient states and D.C.
In 2011, one such weapon found its way to baby-faced gang member Andrew Lopez. Lopez, 18, belonged to 8 Block, a crack-cocaine-dealing crew that his jailed older half-brother formed on the 1800 block of Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. The 8 Block drug connection, Kamel Drew, also trafficked in guns. On Oct. 21, 2011, the crew spotted a rival gang on its block. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon but Lopez headed to the roof of his building and opened fire with a 9-millimeter handgun.
He sprayed the street just outside an elementary school but didn’t hit any rival gang members. One bullet ricocheted and struck Zurana Horton, a 34-year-old mother of 12 children as she hurriedly tried to get her 11-year-old daughter out of harm’s way. Horton died on the street in a pool of blood. The shocking story made international headlines.
It turned out that Horton was the third of four siblings to be shot dead. All three were killed in the street near their home in Brownsville, said their mother, Denise Peace.
Peace’s oldest son, Quran, was 16 when a teen he knew shot him in the heart over a dispute involving Quran’s coat in 1990. In 2010 her son, Vacquran, died in a hail of bullets following an argument at the corner store. “We never found out who did it,” Peace said.
“They were all killed with illegal guns,” said Peace, who is now caring for four of Horton’s youngest kids, ages 4, 5, 6 and 7. Their older siblings have gone to live with their father. “There’s got to be some way to stop these kids from getting these weapons,” she said. “We’ve got to come together.”
Lopez, Horton’s killer, is now 21 years old. He was convicted in April 2013 and sentenced to 55 years to life in jail.
Not everyone sees these women as criminals.
Operation LIPSTICK (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing), a non-profit organization in Boston, works with those convicted of straw buying to get them away from the gun-trafficking culture. It also runs educational campaigns intended to inform at-risk women of the dangers of getting lured into the gun business.
LIPSTICK was founded in 2012 and evolved from Citizens for Safety, an organization that pioneered gun buy-back programs in the mid-1990s. While the campaign had some success in taking weapons off the streets, organizers realized that buy-back programs didn’t address the origin of the problem.
“We were the bucket under a leaky pipe, but the pipe kept leaking,” said LIPSTICK spokesperson Nancy Robinson. “We realized that no one was asking the right question: Where did the guns come from?”
From its inception LIPSTICK has focused on reaching female straw buyers. “No one was thinking critically about the problem, or thinking about how women are involved with trafficking,” said Robinson.
One of its programs, Traffick Jams, created with the help of the Boston police department and the ATF, seeks to create better communication between cops and those who might be tempted to buy guns for others. The success of the program spurred it to spread. Group leaders like Ruth Rollins stress the importance of changing the culture and warn of the many costs of getting involved with weapons trafficking.
“It’s not just the legal consequences,” said Rollins, whose son was murdered in 2008 in an unsolved shooting with a gun tied to a straw purchase. “[LIPSTICK teaches] moral values about how these guns end up in our community killing people.”
Some who advocate for more and tougher laws against straw buying
point to evidence that suggests some elected officials and policy leaders do not grasp the importance of stopping the practice.
Indeed, the most effective measure used to combat straw buying — the federal law that makes it a crime to lie on a gun application when asked if a weapon is intended for you or someone else — barely survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge in June. The case involved a former cop who was fired from the Roanoke, Virginia, police department and was convicted for giving a gun he bought legally to his uncle in Pennsylvania.
The panel’s 5–4 ruling allows strict enforcement of the law, which also requires federally licensed gun dealers to verify the identity of buyers and do background checks. While Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, emphasized that the law was intended to keep guns away from criminals and assist investigations, dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia accused the court majority of making it “a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner.”
Loose laws on the state level significantly hinder police investigations, law-enforcement sources say.
According to a 2010 report, “Trace the Guns,” put out by a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, just 10 states had laws banning straw purchases. Since that time, only a handful have strengthened their policies, including Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams set up a special Gun Violence Task Force in his office that targets third-party gun buyers.
And though federal and state prosecutors have brought dozens of cases against straw buyers, most transactions escape law enforcement scrutiny.
“There’s no way for us to stop these sales,” said David Chipman, a former ATF agent who spent 25 years fighting the black market. “We only have 2,300 agents in the entire country. That’s smaller than many local police departments.”
Investigators say that one big obstacle is the Tiahrt Amendment (named for its author, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas), a 2011 federal law backed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-owner advocates that prohibits the ATF from sharing trace reports it prepares for local police departments. They say that a lack of openness and information sharing have frustrated efforts to study the problem of straw purchasing. No national database exists and most cities are reluctant to reveal their trace reports or share them with other municipalities. Only Chicago has done so.
Interstate trafficking isn’t limited to the Iron Pipeline. Chicago’s explosion of gun violence has been fed in part by a steady stream of weapons from Indiana, with gun-runners supplying about one-quarter of all the guns used in crimes in Illinois. In that corridor, female straw buyers play a part but are slowly being supplanted by young men who have joined a street gang or some other crime group and are hoping to move up the ranks. They see straw buying, which the city in May identified as a key contributor to Chicago’s spiking murder rate, as a way of proving their worth, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the matter.
A similar change has occurred in the Southwest, where handgun traffickers stream across the border to satisfy an almost unlimited demand for high-caliber weapons among warring Mexican drug cartels. “[The buyers] are low-level gang operatives. It’s an entry point to get involved with the cartels,” said gun expert Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
The Iron Pipeline, by contrast, continues to operate much the way it has for decades, undeterred by interdiction efforts and despite such public education campaigns as the ATF’s “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” which seeks to discourage straw buying.
The law never caught up to Tiana.
She was arrested multiple times for drugs but never was charged with a gun crime. Violence propelled her to get out of the gun business. She was shot at twice during her years of trafficking weapons — once in a random attack, when she was hit in the back, and once following a gun deal she had arranged.
“I was looking out the window and I could hear some yelling and screaming,” she recalled. “And the next thing I heard was some gun shots. I was running through the hallway and heard a ‘boom boom!’ I found out later the guy was trying to shoot at me from behind.” She escaped by hiding in a cubby hole.
After the shooting, Tiana connected the dots between carrying guns and violence in her own community. “I thought, damn! You could kill somebody or be killed.”
Previously, she said, “I never thought that guns would hurt someone. I never looked at it like that.”
She has since turned things around for herself, working for a business she started and raising two kids, and is a passionate volunteer for LIPSTICK, speaking out to those leading lives she knows quite well.
“I think I do good,” Tiana said. “The young guys really listen to me now.”
Her message: “I’m tough, so are you. I broke the cycle. So can you.”
The shooting, she discovered, was the result of a fight over a robbery — and that she had supplied the weapon.
This story was commissioned by The Contently Foundation.
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