For Investigative Reporting

Tiana never saw herself as a merchant of death.

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. Her grandmother ran an after-hours booze business from their apartment, selling bottles of beer and pints of liquor until three in the morning.

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. When someone needed a weapon, she made it happen. She shopped at gun stores and trade shows, 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.

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 norm for me."

Straw buying is the norm for legions of others in circumstances similar to Tiana's, according to police and federal agents. They say a small army of young, impressionable women, often from marginalized communities, plays 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 Interstate 95.

They feed this aptly named Iron Pipeline, which fosters a furious trade in illicit, lethal weapons. 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, a data analysis shows.

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 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."

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.