Rashandra Riley is the first to say she had no use for the dozens of guns she bought as a college honors student in Ohio, in two trips to a gun shop nearly 15 years ago.
“What would I want with 40 guns?” Riley says, speaking exclusively to PEOPLE about how women are manipulated to be complicit in the illegal trade that fuels violence and murder in America’s streets. She’s also opening up about how her experience inspired a growing movement, Operation LIPSTICK, which is featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. (The name stands for Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing.)
Now 35, Riley was a cheerleader and on the dean’s list at her small Ohio college when, at age 21, she was asked by a school friend to help him with his gun purchase.
“My questions were not like, ‘Why can’t you do it?’ — but more like, ‘Is this legal? Am I going to be okay?’ ” she recalls.
The request made her uneasy, as did the pushy presence of her classmate. But having grown up in a household where her dad had a shotgun he used for hunting, she felt that anybody who wanted a gun had the right to buy it. So she grudgingly went along, passing her friend’s notes to the store owner without ever reading what they said.
“I wasn’t oblivious,” Riley tells PEOPLE. “I knew that it probably wasn’t right. But I didn’t think it was against the law.”
Not until the guns were recovered in a federal sing — and linked to her name and Social Security number — did Riley learn she’d been a pawn in a trafficking ring, a “straw-buyer” for someone whose criminal past kept him from buying the guns himself.
She was convicted of a felony, sentenced to 100 hours of community service and given two years of probation for a first offense.
When confronted by federal agents, Riley learned that, had the guns she bought been used to murder, she could have been charged as an accessory.
“That was like the truth being thrown in my face,” she says. A truth her friend “did not mention.”
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Inspiring LIPSTICK and Working for Change
Now a youth services provider with library outreach programs in her native St. Louis, Riley still carries the weight of her actions and conviction. “I was never a bad kid,” she says. “I never tell anybody my story. I’m still kind of embarrassed.”
But her experience is celebrated as the spark for LIPSTICK, which recently honored Riley, the first “LIPSTICK Lady,” for her inspiration.
The nonprofit, grassroots effort educates women about the high stakes for themselves if they buy, hold or hide guns for others — who may be their abusers — with the aim of blocking the spread of illegal guns.
Since the 2008 debut of LIPSTICK, in Boston, more than 5,000 women have signed pledges saying they refuse to be used. One district attorney credited LIPSTICK last year with a 33 percent drop in his county in gun-related charges brought against women.
• For more on Operation Lipstick, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
The effort has since expanded to New York and San Francisco.
The connection to women is supported by a 2007 U.S. Justice Department study, which found that handguns purchased by women are 50 percent more likely to be used in crimes than ones bought by men.
That fact reflects the imbalance of domestic abuse, says David M. Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Women end up being made to do this,” Kennedy says. “They are in an abusive relationship, and this becomes part of what they are required to do.”
“Women — both directly and with respect to those they love and care about — suffer horrendously from all this,” he says. “They get shot themselves, they get threatened, they get caught by the police holding a gun illegally, and they go to jail for it. They lose their jobs, their homes, their families, their kids get taken away, and they carry around for the rest of their lives the burden of being part of something where somebody got shot.”
“Women helping women understand that, and what the consequences can be,” he says, “is really important.”
‘My Life Could Have Been Way Different’
LIPSTICK founder Nancy Robinson recalls hearing Riley, after her conviction, speak before Congress about gun-sale loopholes. Robinson says Riley’s story was “jaw-dropping.”
Indeed, what makes Riley stand apart is that she did not match any easy profile of women who become victims. And yet she did.
“He was a really nice guy, but a tough guy, and everybody knew that,” Riley says of the college friend who drafted her as a straw-buyer, and who she identifies only as “A.G.”
“People just knew not to cross him.”
In 2002, Riley was a college junior, majoring in business management, when a fellow cheerleader’s boyfriend told her A.G. was looking for her and wanted a favor.
The four of them went for pizza, where A.G. pulled Riley aside. He had several questions: Was she 21? Did she have a state ID? Would she go into town with him to pick up a gun?
“It was almost intimidating,” she says. “It wasn’t like he couldn’t do it; it was more like, why I could, or why I’d better do it.” When she agreed, “I just wanted to be done with the conversation, because I knew he was going to be relentless about it.”
On the appointed day, Riley handed the store owner a note from A.G. as he waited outside, and she filled out paperwork on the application for purchase. Then her friend paid him, and they left. “It was just super quick,” she says. They returned a second time after the order arrived. Riley passed the store owner a second note and then waited in the car.
She later learned she bought 25 guns on her first trip and 15 on her second.
She does not know what became of A.G. or what charges and penalties he may have faced. (“He was in it for the money,” she says.)
As her first offense, “they just really gave me leniency,” she says. But as she researched “straw purchasing,” she came to understood what she’d unwittingly done.
With the call inviting her to testify before Congress about gun-buying loopholes, she eagerly accepted.
“I felt like I was really using my voice on a higher plateau to get something changed,” Riley says.
But LIPSTICK doesn’t rely on legislative solutions, Robinson says, instead targeting communities affected by gun violence so women can help secure the safer streets they seek.
“Women have tremendous moral authority,” says Kennedy, with the National Network for Safe Communities.
“He was a smart guy, and he knew the cards to play on people,” Riley says of A.G. “There’s probably a lot of women just caught between a rock and a boyfriend, and they probably don’t know this is something they can be criminally charged with.”
“My life could have been way different,” she says. “I’m here to help somebody else.”