They drove four hours south through Mississippi, back down the gravel road that led to a house that once belonged to a family.
Roger Stringer climbed out of his red Nissan pickup and watched as his son Zac eyed the front door. Inside the house, pencil marks still notched the pantry wall, reminders of the boys Zac and his younger brother, Justin, had been. The last time the boys had lived there, they’d been 15 and 11.
“Well,” Roger said. “Here we are, buddy.”
Zac pushed the door open. He was 20 now, tall enough at 6’2″ that he towered over his father. He walked through the kitchen with an ankle monitor strapped to his left leg. He stopped at the edge of the living room, and Roger wondered if his son imagined the space as it had been. Roger had done all he could to transform it after the night he called “the happening.” He’d hired a taxidermist to clean the blood and brain matter that had hung like black icicles from the deer heads he kept mounted above the sofa. A cleaning crew had bleached the walls and replaced the carpet. The couch was gone, and so was the blue recliner where Justin had last sat.
Roger watched his son, so thin that the prison-issued prescription glasses he wore slipped down his nose, and couldn’t help but feel responsible. Roger had bought the Remington Model 700 rifle that Zac swore fired on its own as he stood up from the couch one evening in the summer of 2011, hitting Justin in the forehead and killing him instantly. Zac said he hadn’t touched the trigger. Roger hadn’t believed him, and after the district attorney charged the teenager with murder, Roger testified against his son. Zac’s rifle couldn’t have accidentally fired, Roger told the jury. Guns didn’t do that.
He followed Zac to his bedroom and stood next to the wooden gun rack that used to hold the rifle. Roger had learned too late that he was wrong: Some Remingtons do fire without warning. Years after he’d lost one son to prison and the other forever, he’d discovered that Remington Arms had recalled nearly eight million Model 700s. Because of a massive class-action settlement approved in October, owners have 18 months to get them repaired at no cost.
Remington maintains that its Model 700s are safe, even as internal documents and outside tests have revealed problems. Relatively few gun owners have responded to the recall: Only 30,000 — less than 1 percent of the recalled rifles — have been fixed.
Roger had loved Remington since he was a little boy wielding his granddaddy’s shotgun to take down a buck. He considered himself a “typical, gun-loving redneck,” an unlikely foe for the country’s oldest firearms manufacturer. But watching Zac crawl into the king-sized bed Roger had bought to replace the twin the boy had left behind, Roger told himself he wouldn’t let another father live through what he had.
He’d failed Zac when the teenager needed him most, but Roger promised that he’d become the daddy his son needed. He would give up the one thing he’d loved almost as much as his boys. He’d clear Zac’s name and fight the gun company he now blamed for Justin’s death.
Everyone hunted in Roger’s hometown of Columbia, Mississippi — a rural, 6,000-person community two hours northeast of New Orleans. Columbia has long been one of the poorest towns in the country’s poorest state, but Roger grew up knowing it was rich in resources. Bass and crappie swam in the Pearl River. Ducks circled every local creek. And deer loped through the hardwood hollows, even before conservation-minded sportsmen helped establish hunting limits.
Most of Roger’s relatives killed the animals they ate. His family treated deer sausage the way other families relied on store-bought chicken breasts.
Roger was 11 the first time he killed a buck. Some Mississippi boys kept a body count, but what Roger cherished most were the moments between shots — threading through the longleaf pines, puzzling out the world species by species. Locusts were loudest in fall, he learned. Blue jays sounded like squirrels when they shook slack branches. Even fire ants, whose stinging bites leave uncomfortable welts, possessed a kind of magic.
Roger’s dad usually left him at a tree stump and said they’d stalk supper separately. Out in the woods, long before Roger ever had his first girlfriend, he promised himself: When he became a father, he’d hunt with his kids. They’d watch the sun rise and the frost melt together.
As a boy, Roger never dreamed of leaving Columbia. After high school, he tried four semesters at the local junior college, then dropped out to become a power line worker. He met Kim, the woman who would become his wife, at a New Year’s Eve party when he was 23. Several years later they had two boys and a brick house they’d designed themselves on land Roger’s grandmother had purchased in the 1930s with money she’d earned picking cotton.
Roger owned half-a-dozen firearms then, most of which he’d inherited. Some were suited for turkey, others for ducks. He taught his sons to shoot with BB guns and aluminum cans, and gave them single-shot youth models to hunt their first deer. Zac was 8 when he got his first doe. Justin was just 7.
By the fall of 2008, Roger felt Zac should graduate to an adult model. Roger wanted a rifle powerful enough to kill a deer 300 yards away, but gentle enough that the recoil wouldn’t knock down a skinny 12-year-old boy. Roger thought a Ruger M77 might suit Zac best; the bolt-action rifle shot smooth and strong. But that gun cost more than $500, and some weeks Roger had to comb his truck for quarters to pay for fishing bait.
Roger settled on the Remington Model 700. It was $100 cheaper, and his wife owned a Model 700 so accurate Roger told people it “shot like it had eyes.”
Remington started making the rifle in 1962, when DuPont owned the company, and initially designed it with a two-piece firing mechanism called the Walker Fire Control Trigger Assembly. It used both a trigger and a separate connector, a bit of engineering that hunters said gave Model 700s an especially smooth shot. No other company made a two-part trigger like it.
Remington, which did not return calls asking for an interview, sold 6.5 million rifles with that trigger between 1962 and 2006. Police departments used it, as did Border Control agents and military snipers in the Army and Marine Corps. The company eventually abandoned the two-piece design. Two years before Roger began researching, the company debuted its replacement trigger, the X-Mark Pro.
Roger spent evenings that November on his wife’s laptop, clicking through hunting chat rooms to learn all he could about the Remington. The .25-06 cartridge the Model 700 used shot flat and fast — more than 3,200 feet-per-second, an efficiency unmatched by other mid-sized guns. The rifle would have three times as much recoil as Zac’s youth model, but less than half the kick-back Roger’s Winchester Magnum put off.
None of Roger’s research revealed the peculiarity that would come to define his life. Since at least 1948, when three customers returned their Model 721s saying the Walker triggers had fired when the safety was released, Remington officials have known that their rifles sometimes shoot even if no one pulls the trigger.
By mid-December, Roger had saved enough for the rifle and a scope, the sighting device hunters look through to aim at prey hundreds of yards away. He drove to Waldo’s Sports Center, a locally owned hunting supplies store, to special order it. When the Remington arrived on Christmas Eve, Roger left it in the living room unwrapped, so the first thing Zac saw when he bounded out of bed the next morning was the present he’d long begged for — eight pounds of steel and hard plastic, his first grown-up gun.
Zac shot a deer two days after Christmas, and killed another half dozen over the next two hunting seasons. But he complained about the rifle. The trigger was hard to pull, he said. Though Remington advertises the Model 700 as the most accurate rifle out of the box, Zac thought it didn’t shoot right. The bullet always hit a little left or right of where he’d aimed.
Occasionally, Roger and his sons hunted together, but Roger preferred taking one boy out at a time. Their conversations ran deeper that way. The pre-dawn woods were cover enough for Zac to confess that he’d tried and failed to be popular. Alone and hunched together in a deer stand one Sunday, Justin told Roger that kids at school made fun of the way his teeth jutted forward.
“They call me Sponge Buck,” Justin confided.
“Buddy,” Roger said. “When you get back to school tomorrow, you tell them that your daddy said, ‘We gon’ get my teeth fixed, but there ain’t nothing they can do about how ugly you are.’”
Roger’s wife, Kim, rarely joined their excursions. She wanted to travel and go out with friends; Roger didn’t. Eventually, they decided they had too little in common to stay married, and Roger moved out. They agreed to sell the house they’d designed together, but they waited to tell the boys. In June, when the first prospective buyers asked to tour the house, Kim asked Roger to take his sons out for a few hours.
The family lived in a rural part of Columbia called Enon. That night, Roger asked the boys if they wanted to go “to town,” a strip of big box stores and local restaurants posted along the highway 15 minutes west. He picked up Zac and Justin around 6 p.m., and they headed to Jack’s Family Restaurant, where they each ordered a baked potato and half a pound of boiled shrimp. Roger felt relieved watching Zac wolf his down. Zac had been on medicine to curb his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since he was 5, and the pills left him with little appetite. He was so skinny at 15 that doctors encouraged Kim and Roger to take him off the medicine for the summer so he could bulk up.
Justin ate half his shrimp, then asked Zac if he wanted the rest. The teenager nodded his head yes and reached for his 11-year-old brother’s plate.
“No,” Justin said. “I’ll peel ‘em for you.”
After dinner, the three Stringers shopped for fishing supplies at Walmart, then Roger dropped the boys at home. Kim wasn’t there, Roger knew, but they had a free weekend of HBO, and Zac wanted to watch “How to Train Your Dragon.” Roger told his sons he loved them before driving two miles to his parents’ house, where he was staying.
Twenty minutes later, around 8:30 p.m., Zac called, panicked and screaming.
“Daddy,” Zac said. “Justin’s dead.”
Roger ran out of the house, jumped into his truck and sped down a one-lane country road. He careened past the graveyard where his grandparents were buried, past the creek where he and Justin had hunted wood ducks a few weeks before. He turned left onto Bayliss Chapel Road, which connects to the quarter-mile gravel path that is the Stringer driveway.
He parked in the grass to leave space for the ambulance he was sure would need the carport. Roger ran toward the house and pushed past Zac, who was standing outside sobbing, begging his father not to go in.
Roger opened the door and smelled gunpowder. He could see from the kitchen that the walls were speckled red. Roger found Justin in the living room, still sitting in the blue recliner, the top half of his head gone. Fragments of his skull littered the floor, and part of his brain lay next to the recliner. Roger wanted to grab his son’s body and had to stop himself from reaching out.
This is going to be a crime scene, he thought.
On the phone, Zac had told Roger that Justin had been shot with a .25-06 cartridge — the ammunition the Remington fired. But later that night Zac told Roger and investigators that he’d been in his bedroom when he heard the blast of another gun, a Benelli 20-gauge shotgun that Roger had found resting between Justin’s legs. The barrel of the Benelli was pointed up, which didn’t make sense. If Justin had shot himself, the shotgun would have tumbled away from him.
A few weeks later, after the sheriff who’d once served as Zac’s T-ball coach arrested him for murder, Zac recounted a different story in two interviews with Marion County Sheriff’s investigators. The truth, he explained, was so incomprehensible that he had tried to concoct a new one.
Zac told investigators that when he went to his room to watch the movie, Justin stayed in the living room, playing with the blow-dart gun he’d gotten in the mail that morning. From his bedroom, Zac could hear Justin shooting things with darts. He hit the walls and the furniture. One dart even hit their dachshund, Fred. The dog wobbled into Zac’s bedroom with it sticking out of his side, and Justin appeared in the doorway behind him.
When Justin threatened to shoot Zac with the dart gun next, Zac pulled his rifle off its rack and loaded the gun — a mimed threat, he said, not a serious one. They went into the living room, Zac still holding his rifle, and talked for a while. They decided to watch HBO together, so Zac said he’d put his gun away.
“I remember getting up, and I heard a click,” Zac told the sheriff’s deputies. “And I had no reaction time between the click and the bang. It was just click, poooff.”
Zac spoke in a slow stutter as he described that night; his voice broke between words. He’d moved through the house numb and scared, he said. He knew he hadn’t touched the trigger. How could the gun have fired? He was sure no one would believe him, so he staged the scene, he admitted, to look like Justin had killed himself by accident.
He grabbed the Benelli out of Justin’s room and fired a round into the backyard. He placed the shotgun between his brother’s legs. He didn’t remove the spent shell from the Remington because he didn’t want to touch the rifle — not because he was worried about leaving fingerprints, he told investigators, but because he was afraid it might fire again. He didn’t clean the blood off his clothes or his gun or wipe away the bloody handprint he left on the wall.
“Y’all weren’t even a thought,” he told the investigators who had used the evidence to arrest him. “I could take all this. I just couldn’t face my mama and daddy with it.”
His voice softened to a whisper: “Daddy’s been training me in gun safety since the day I was old enough to listen. Safety courses like crazy. I thought I was the last one in the world something like this is going to happen to.”
Zac was 16 when his trial began a year and a half later, in February 2013. He’d spent most of those 18 months in jail. Though a judge had agreed to let him out on bond, Roger refused to pay for bail. Kim came up with the money and, worried for her son’s safety, moved him 45 minutes away.
The Columbia community had been so outraged after Justin’s death that the state held Zac’s trial at a Gulf Coast courtroom two hours away. Roger was one of 10 people who testified for the prosecution. Zac’s mother, the only person to testify in his defense, sat alone on the other side of the courtroom.
Kim acknowledged that her son’s initial lie was “stupid.” But he was 15 years old, she thought, and he was terrified.
District Attorney Hal Kittrell charged the teenager with murder, but Mississippi’s medical examiner testified that she couldn’t determine whether the shooting had been intentional. The sheriff’s deputies hadn’t collected the pieces of Justin’s skull that night, and neither the notes nor the photographs that investigators gave her were enough to determine how far away the gun had been, or the trajectory the bullet had traveled.
Lacking complete physical evidence, as well as a motive for a boy whose brother had just peeled his shrimp, Kittrell instead built his case around a simple argument: Zac’s gun could not have fired unless someone pulled the trigger.
“You don’t just get up and it happens,” Kittrell told the jury. “Somebody has to pull it.”
But in the first two decades Remington sold the rifles, hundreds of people complained to the company that their rifles had fired when they shut the bolt or turned the safety off — before the customers pulled the triggers. Some sued, claiming that the 700 could, in fact, go off on its own. Juries sided with Remington in some cases, and the company settled several others, tacking on confidentiality clauses to limit talk of the trigger’s alleged malfunctions. But a few cases made national news. In 1994, a Texas oilfield worker won a $17 million verdict after he claimed that his Model 700 fired without his pulling the trigger, the bullet tearing through his foot with such force that it had to be amputated. And in late October 2000, at the end of a family elk-hunting trip, a Montana woman released the safety on her Model 700, and a bullet shot out and killed her 9-year-old son.
After the Montana family sued the company, Remington’s engineers redesigned the trigger, promising they’d fixed the problem.
When Remington debuted the new X-Mark Pro in 2006, Field & Stream called the Teflon-finished, rust-resistant trigger a “doozer” — an extraordinary mechanism — and praised its “dead-clean release.”
But hunters complained about the new trigger, too, starting as early as 2010 — more than a year before Justin died. Hundreds more have complained since, according to a database kept by Tom Butters, a mechanical engineer from Texas. Butters has worked as a paid witness in more than a dozen lawsuits against Remington and compiled his database using reports from Remington’s product services department made public in court filings.
The New Jersey State Police sent their rifles back in October 2011, alleging that the guns “slam fired” when the officers loaded cartridges. Other people told Remington their Model 700s had shot holes in their walls and sliced through their TVs, all without a pulled trigger. One owner said his rifle went off five times in a row. After he put it in the freezer, it stopped firing. “Happened twice in December,” one customer noted. “Happened three times in a day,” another said. In a 2012 entry, an employee in Remington’s product services department wrote, “Owner wanted refund because he is scared of the gun.”
Most of those incidents never made the news. But in 2010, more than a year before Justin died, CNBC produced an investigation showing that Remington had known since the 1940s that the old trigger — the one that killed the boy in Montana — could fire if someone pushed the safety to the off position. The trigger’s designer, the CNBC report alleged, had proposed a fix that would have cost five-and-a-half cents per gun. The company decided against it.
In 2011, the year Justin died, a district attorney in North Carolina hesitated before prosecuting a white man charged with killing a black girl. The man said his Remington, outfitted with the X-Mark Pro, went off as he pulled the rifle out of its case. The bullet sped through his bedroom window, sailed across the street, and hit three people, including the 16-year-old who died.
The district attorney examined the rifle and other evidence, including Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia the man owned, and declined to charge him. The girl’s family reviewed the findings, said they agreed with the decision, then filed a suit against Remington, which they eventually settled.
At Zac’s trial, no one mentioned the CNBC documentary or the dozens of lawsuits pending against Remington. The state’s firearms expert testified that she had hit the Remington with a rubber mallet and dropped it from three feet. Neither test made the rifle fire.
Roger was the last witness to appear for the state. He told himself he was testifying because Justin couldn’t. Roger didn’t understand why Zac might have killed his brother. The boys got along as well as siblings ever do; they argued sometimes, but never violently. Once, Roger had pushed them to fistfight in the yard, but Zac refused to hit his brother in the face. The best Roger could figure was that taking Zac off his ADHD medication had caused him to snap. The alternative — the idea that Zac’s rifle had fired on its own — just didn’t make sense.
Some guns, like Roger’s own Winchester Magnum, had a “sweeter trigger,” Roger explained to the jury. A light touch could make it fire. Zac’s wasn’t like that. The Remington had a hard trigger and a hard safety. The state’s expert had tested the rifle and found that it took five pounds of pressure to pull the trigger back.
“So it’s not like your gun where you just touch it?” Kittrell asked Roger. “This one you had to exert some energy to pull that trigger back for it to fire?”
“Yes sir,” Roger said.
During cross-examination, Zac’s defense attorney, a former public defender named Tom Fortner, recounted the ways Roger had turned his back on Zac. He’d left him in jail and even stopped visiting him. “Because you’re having a problem with this whole accident idea, aren’t you?” Fortner pressed.
“Yes,” Roger said.
“Because that shouldn’t happen, should it? This accident shouldn’t happen, should it?”
“Nope,” Roger answered.
Fortner tried to undermine the momentum building against Zac by telling the jury that Roger didn’t want to hold himself responsible.
“The truth is, this was an accident,” Fortner said. “And if it was an accident, then this accident happened because of the culture in that community and in that home of handling guns all the time, having access to guns like that, easy access to ammunition and guns. And if this was an accident, then Roger Dale Stringer himself has to take responsibility for it.”
The jury deliberated three and a half hours before declaring Zac guilty of manslaughter. Two weeks later, the judge sentenced him to a 20-year-split sentence: 10 years in prison, 10 years on probation. He’d be a man when he got out.
After the incident, no one wanted to pay market value for the Stringers’ house, and Roger didn’t want to sell it at a discount, so he moved back in. He spent hours searching through Justin’s drawers for pieces of the kid he’d been. Roger hung a poster-sized picture of the boy’s Little League portrait from the curtain rod, and he put a few things on Justin’s bed: a book of memories the community had compiled, essays in which at least 10 kids claimed to have been Justin’s best friend, and Justin’s favorite hat, a camo snapback with REMINGTON written on the front.
Roger still thought Zac was lying, but he couldn’t bear to be away from Zac the first Christmas Eve the boy spent locked up. The jail didn’t allow visitors that night, so Roger parked his pickup near the front door, as close to his only living boy as he could get.
A few years after Justin died, Roger drove 45 minutes to Books-a-Million to search for advice on depression or grieving. But bookstores, he found, didn’t carry guides for men in his situation, so he started shopping elsewhere. He bought two AR-15s, a tactical shotgun, and two pistols. Guns had always been Roger’s ‘ointment,’ distractions that soothed him when he was upset. He cleaned his new purchases and took the AR-15s out to shoot wild hogs, but he’d lost the taste for his favorite hobby. He started shaking as soon as he hoisted his rifle.
By March 2015, Roger had mostly given up shooting or even holding his guns. He sank his time into gardening. He grew enough corn and green beans to give big bags of each to the women who worked at his local bank. One Saturday, a childhood friend came over to help install a cow panel, heavy wire fencing that Roger wanted for his cucumbers to climb. They unloaded the panels, then lingered by the shed, talking a while. It was opening morning of turkey season, and their conversation eventually turned to hunting.
“I had a gun go off on me one time,” the man told Roger. It wasn’t a Remington, the man said, but he’d taken his deer-hunting rifle out to the practice range a few years earlier, and as soon as he’d chambered a round, the gun fired.
“I looked at my fingers,” the man said, “and there was not a finger on that trigger.”
They talked another 15 minutes, but Roger couldn’t concentrate. When his friend left, Roger rushed back inside. He pulled out his iPhone 4 and Googled, “Remington Model 700 spontaneous firing.”
He found the CNBC documentary and watched the whole hour on his phone. He discovered traces of lawsuits and videos that hunters had posted on YouTube, alleging that their rifles had fired just the way Zac said his had.
Eventually, Roger’s search led him to a Remington website. Roger used his thumb and index finger to zoom in on the words: “Remington has determined that some Model 700 and Model Seven rifles with XMP triggers could, under certain circumstances, unintentionally discharge.”
Had Zac been telling the truth? The website noted that the company was only recalling some Model 700s. Maybe his wasn’t one of them, he thought. When car manufacturers recalled vehicles, they sent letters in bright envelopes. Roger hadn’t received a thing.
A few weeks later, he worked up the nerve to dial the number listed on the Remington recall website. He recited the serial number.
“Yep,” the Remington worker said. The gun had been recalled a year earlier, in April 2014 — nearly three years after Justin’s death.
When Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972, a Democratic lawmaker from Michigan won a provision that prohibits the federal government from regulating gun safety. Firearms are the only product for which the government cannot issue a mandatory recall.
Still, some gun manufacturers have voluntarily recalled their weapons. In 2015, as part of a class-action settlement, Taurus recalled nearly one million pistols. HatsanUSA recalled its striker air rifles in 2012 after one rifle unexpectedly discharged.
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Remington considered recalling the Model 700 at least twice before Roger bought one. In 1994, after the Texas oilman won the $17 million verdict, Remington accountants determined that if 30 percent of Model 700-owners returned their rifles, it would cost the company more than $22 million.
Even after Remington phased out its two-part Walker trigger, company officials did nothing to warn the 6.5 million people who owned rifles outfitted with that mechanism. Finally, in late January 2013, one week before Zac’s trial began, a Missouri hunter filed a class-action lawsuit to try to force Remington to recall the old triggers.
By March 2014, the class-action plaintiffs had started negotiating with Remington to replace all of the old Walker triggers with X-Mark Pros. A few months before, a retired soldier named J.R. Otto had uploaded a video to YouTube that showed his X-Mark Pro rifle firing when he pushed the safety. With the class-action suit pending, and Otto’s YouTube video racking up views, a Remington investigator sent the rifle to Derek Watkins, the company’s director of product technology integration.
Watkins, an engineer, testified in a 2015 civil lawsuit that he tested Otto’s rifle, and found that it fired when cooled to 10 degrees. He checked 10 other Model 700s, but none fired. Watkins, figuring something must be different about Otto’s rifle, opened the gun. He examined the trigger under a microscope and found that the bonding agent used, Loctite 660, had pooled on the tip of a screw that sits between the trigger and the safety. The manufacturing mistake, Watkins later testified, could cause the trigger to pull forward along with the safety or bolt — essentially turning both into firing mechanisms.
Watkins analyzed 14 other X-Mark Pro triggers under a microscope and found that three had excess Loctite. He tested those at 10, 20 and 30 degrees — temperatures not uncommon during deer-hunting season even in some Southern states. Each one fired when he moved the safety.
Remington halted production of the X-Mark Pro. On April 11, 2014, the gunmaker recalled the 1.2 million rifles it had manufactured with the new trigger.
As the class action wore on, Remington agreed to recall Model 700s with both triggers — a combined 7.85 million rifles.
Class-action experts say the best way to reach a customer is through the post office. But the company didn’t send letters to most of the 1.2 million people who owned Model 700s outfitted with the X-Mark Pro. Initially, the company mailed only 2,571 postcards, contacting people who had already paid the company to replace their triggers.
In court, Remington officials have said that they have no way of finding most of the people who own their rifles. Federal law prohibits anyone from creating a searchable registry of gun owners. The only record of most gun purchases is a piece of paper — Federal Form 4473, the Firearms Transaction Record — that remains at the store where the person bought the gun.
“Gun owners are a group like no others,” the court-appointed mediator Glenn Norton, a judge from Missouri, testified during a 2016 settlement hearing. “A large percentage of these folks, as I know from personal experience, wouldn’t turn their rifles in if we knocked on their door and told them what the allegations are in this case because, frankly, they’re suspicious … they feel like someone’s trying to take their guns away.”
Remington posted notices in seven magazines, including Guns & Ammo and the National Rifle Association’s flagship publication, American Rifleman, and purchased Facebook ads. By December 2015, only 2,327 Model 700 owners had sent back their rifles.
U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith twice directed Remington to come up with a better strategy. Remington’s lawyers told Smith in August 2016 that they had compiled a database of 1.1 million people who either had sent in their warranty cards or signed up for the company’s email notifications; the company promised to send either an email or a letter to those people.
Attorneys general from nine states and the District of Columbia wrote the court in January, 2017, urging the judge not to approve the recall process. The notices weren’t descriptive or informative enough, they noted, and Remington hadn’t even tried to find its rifles’ owners. Remington could have asked authorized dealers to contact their customers, the attorneys general noted, or it could have reached out to states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, that keep records of recent gun purchases.
But in March 2017, Smith approved the settlement. By then, only 22,000 people had sent in their Model 700s. That left as many as seven million unfixed rifles in circulation — “guns,” the attorneys general noted, “that might go off accidentally at any time.”
Every autumn was a reminder. In November, when deer season opened, he looked toward his shed, still rigged up to skin a buck, and longed for the days he’d lost. Before Justin died, Roger had been the guy who cleaned everyone’s deer. He had hosted parties most weekends. Half a dozen kids had run through the woods around his house, playing hide-and-go-seek while the adults broke down the meat.
No one visited anymore. Instead, Roger spent hunting season inside. He considered destroying the two Remingtons he still owned — his ex-wife’s Model 700 and the Model 11 shotgun his grandfather had left him after he died. He’d always imagined passing them down to Justin or Zac. But ruining the heirlooms felt too final, like he’d be giving up the only vestiges he had left. No, he decided. He wouldn’t let Remington take his memories, too.
Zac had exhausted his appeals by the time Roger discovered the recall, but Roger took out a $10,000 loan to rehire Tom Fortner, the defense lawyer.
“He was telling the dadgum truth, and nobody believed it,” Roger told Fortner in his Hattiesburg office.
Fortner said there was a slim chance that a court would overturn Zac’s conviction, but they needed an expert, someone who could persuade a judge that Zac’s gun could have malfunctioned.
Roger didn’t tell Zac that he’d started to believe him. He wanted to have real evidence and a plan to get Zac out of prison first. Roger spent all of his vacation days in the spring of 2015 driving across the state to ask firearms experts to join his fight. He approached gunsmiths in north Mississippi and pawnshop dealers an hour west of Columbia. They turned him down. A man who builds custom rifles in Jackson agreed to hear him out, but eventually stopped answering both Roger’s and Fortner’s calls. No one ever gave an explicit reason, Roger said, but he understood when they told him, “You know why I can’t.” They couldn’t risk their livelihoods by taking on a major gun manufacturer.
That summer, in prison, Zac opened the latest edition of Field & Stream. Critics of the Remington recall argued that the ads the company bought in magazines were so nondescript — designed with bland fonts and devoid of images — that few people would ever notice them. But Zac had little to do in prison, so he was reading every word of the magazine when he finished an article on gun silencers, then flipped the page. His eyes stopped on a black-and-white ad.
“If you own certain Remington firearms,” he read, “you may be eligible for benefits from a class action settlement.”
He ran to the prison phone and called his father.
“Daddy,” he said. “That gun that killed Justin? There’s a recall on them things.”
Roger acknowledged that he already knew, that he’d been working for months to find a way to get him out of prison. “Baby, it’s going to take time,” Roger said. “Just know daddy is doing his best.”
Soon after, Roger wrote CNBC to ask if they’d connect him to the father of the boy who died in Montana. The documentary had called Richard Barber an expert marksman, a hunter so knowledgeable that other victims had enlisted him to testify against Remington.
Barber called Roger in March 2016. He told Roger that he had spent more than a decade fighting Remington, but would consider helping Roger as his final battle. But first, Barber said he wanted to investigate Zac’s case for himself. He asked Roger to send him everything — the trial transcript, every report the police and state experts made, even the gruesome crime-scene photos.
A few weeks later, Barber called again. The evidence had convinced him to take on Zac’s case, he said, and he’d do it for free. He told Roger that he had amassed more than a million of Remington’s internal documents. Roger tried to read everything Barber sent him — dense depositions, long testimonies about bonding agents and tiny mechanisms. He often fell asleep trying to decipher them. Still, Roger felt less alone when talking to Barber. Few people understood what it was like to lose a child, much less in an accident as grisly and as complicated by family guilt.
Roger still loved Columbia, but he found that he didn’t agree with everyone in town the way he once had. At church, the Sunday school pastor occasionally preached against prisoners, but Roger had started to empathize with the inmates he’d come to know while visiting Zac at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state prison. Parchman had no air conditioning, even though the temperature rose into the 90s every summer. The prison went on lockdown for months at a time, meaning Zac and other inmates couldn’t go outside. Before the Federal Communications Commission forced the state to lower the prices, some calls home cost as much as $14 a minute.
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Roger liked that guns were mostly unregulated, and he voted for conservative politicians he believed would protect his right to own them. But after he learned about the Remington recall, he began wishing someone had intervened.
The more he learned, the more Roger felt like he had to do something he’d never imagined himself doing. He had to fight a gun company. He’d followed the class-action proceedings from afar and feared Remington’s recall efforts wouldn’t reach other men like him. In October 2016, as the lawsuit neared a settlement, he decided to contact the judge. Roger worried that the judge might dismiss his two-page letter as the ramblings of a still-grieving father, but the words came easy. He wrote about his boys, how he’d lost one to a gun and the other to prison. The recall had come too late for the kid Roger described as “my little buddy,” but he believed the judge could force Remington to better alert gun owners.
“Your Honor,” he typed, “I humbly ask you on behalf of all those still in danger because of these triggers, please do what you can to keep this from happening to other families.”
He signed the letter in blue cursive, then folded it into an envelope. Before he mailed it, Roger slipped in a photograph of Justin sitting on a pile of mossy rocks, his school picture, the last he’d ever have.
Some of Roger’s family members stopped talking to him soon after, but when 60 Minutes called, Roger agreed to be interviewed. As the crew reported in October, 2016, prison officials suddenly announced that Zac would be let out on good behavior, having served half his 10-year sentence.
Kim had remarried and moved to the East Coast, so Zac — still on probation — settled back into his old bedroom. At 20, he’d never kissed a girl or learned to drive. He lay around the house in Batman socks and Yoda T-shirts.
Roger wanted his boy to have a normal life, but most people in town wanted nothing to do with him. Roger’s relatives barred Zac from visiting. When the owner of a local tire shop agreed to hire Zac as a mechanic, some customers vowed to boycott it.
“They think Zac murdered Justin,” Roger said. “And they think I’m a kook that will latch on to anything to try to exonerate Zac.”
In 2017, a few months after Zac came home, Roger asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to vacate the felony that might prevent Zac from finding a good job.
“If the jury had been presented with the evidence of the many accidental firings of this type of Remington rifle,” he wrote, then “the jury would have had real evidence that my boy was telling the truth.”
In early 2017, the state Supreme Court granted Zac permission to ask the Marion County Circuit Court for a new trial.
Kittrell, the district attorney, did not respond to several requests for an interview. To try to knock down Zac’s appeal, he seized upon Remington’s tests to mount a new argument. Though Remington’s engineers never tested the X-Mark Pro in warmer temperatures, Kittrell asserted that the triggers only malfunction in cold weather — and could not have spontaneously fired on a June evening in Mississippi. And even if the court does find that Zac’s rifle could accidentally discharge, Zac’s conviction of negligent manslaughter was appropriate, Kittrell argued in an affidavit, because he loaded the rifle.
Zac’s appeal was assigned to the same judge who sentenced him back in 2013. At Fortner’s office one late August morning, while they waited for the judge’s decision, the defense attorney told Roger that the judge could reaffirm the court’s earlier verdict, or he could ask someone to examine Zac’s rifle.
“The issue now is, ‘Is this evidence that should have been given to the jury?’” Fortner said. “It would have been a significant piece of evidence for me.”
Roger told people that he had decided long ago that he would spend his life in Columbia even if the town turned against him. But, after his conversations with Barber, Roger had started to dream in ways he hadn’t before. He thought he might like to ride in an airplane, maybe go to Montana to visit Barber’s hay farm.
“I’d love to see an elk in Yellowstone on a cold frosty morning right at sunrise,” he told Zac as they drove to a high school football game in August. “I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to shoot one of those animals, but that’s just in my mind. That would be the most majestic thing that I could ever see. And I want to see it.”
For now, he was bound, as Zac was, to Mississippi. Roger still saw the first responders at church every Sunday morning. At restaurants, people still stared. Sometimes, when he showed up to work on a power line, customers asked him, “Are you that guy?”
In late August, on what would have been Justin’s 19th birthday, Roger remembered that he’d once videotaped a hunting trip with Justin. He dug through a cabinet under the television, then pulled out a handheld camcorder. He fiddled with the machine until a tiny picture appeared: two does grazing on light green grass.
He held the camcorder up to his ear. The sound was faint, but he could hear Justin whispering in a squeaky Southern drawl. Roger sighed, and his eyes welled up. He was back in the woods at sunrise, the frost rising off the doe’s hair in whiffs. In the video, he told his son to stay as still and quiet as possible.
“Just stay on her,” he whispered to Justin. “Go ahead and shoot her in the head. Shoot her in the head if you can.”
The gunshot echoed. When the bullet hit, the doe’s back legs flew up and then the video ended. His younger boy disappeared.
The next morning, Roger woke up early to help Zac get ready for his first day at a Christian college in Hattiesburg. School officials told Roger that Zac was the first felon they’d ever allowed to enroll, but still the conviction held him back. Zac couldn’t pursue the nursing degree he wanted, and he couldn’t live on campus. He had to leave before the sun rose in order to make it to his 8 a.m. class 45 minutes away.
Zac had spent the weekend at orientation and told his father about it as they sat down for breakfast. Roger sipped a 20-ounce thermos of coffee while Zac ate a microwaved sausage biscuit.
“They had college life-hacks, and they had ramen noodles sitting up on that table,” Zac said. “I ate ramen noodles for five years. I don’t want to smell it, I don’t want to fix it, I don’t want to see it. I was grateful for them in prison, but it reminds me of that.”
Roger laughed and promised he’d have deer sausage waiting that night. He no longer killed his own meat, but a friend made sure his freezer stayed stocked. They hugged goodbye, then Roger was alone again in the house meant for four.
He tucked a wad of wintergreen tobacco into his bottom lip and drifted back into the living room, stood in the spot where Justin had died, and looked at the television. The Today Show was broadcasting a report about a shooting rampage that left three people dead in Florida. Roger watched for a second, then turned off the TV, sat down and cried.
Roger knew the judge might take a while to decide Zac’s fate. Fortner and Kittrell had filed hundreds of documents, dense arguments the judge’s clerk charitably described as “voluminous.” To bide his time, Roger brainstormed ways to tell other hunters about the recall.
After years of negotiations and appeals, the class-action settlement finally became official in October, leaving rifle owners 18 months to file claims for a free trigger replacement. Roger told friends that the settlement was “a sham.” He agreed with the attorneys general who’d argued that Remington hadn’t done enough to notify gun owners, and he didn’t like that, as part of the settlement, Remington could continue to deny that their Model 700s have problems.
Still, he tried to spread the word about the hazards the guns could present. He talked about the recall at restaurants and at high school football games. He worried people would peg him as a lunatic, so he waited for openings, for reasons to tell strangers mid-conversation that he’d lost a child to a faulty trigger. “Those guns are killers,” he told people. “If you have one, you need to get the trigger replaced.”
On weekends, as Zac puzzled over college Algebra, Roger worked up Facebook posts urging people to send in their rifles. He knew his influence was limited: he had only so many Facebook friends and he seemed to lose a few more every time he posted about Remington. “Y’all please get your triggers replaced,” he wrote this fall. “Even if you are so perfect that you KNOW it won’t ever happen to you. Guns get handed down through generations, please don’t take that chance with other younger family members that may not be quite so perfect.”
The only time his mind quieted was after a storm. In late October, Roger’s power line crew headed to the Florida Panhandle to help mend the utility poles Hurricane Michael had destroyed. He worked through daylight and slept only a few hours each night, either on church floors or in the cab of his pickup. He felt almost at peace, so tired that his brain numbed.
He’d been in the field nearly two weeks when the judge called in early November. Prentiss Harrell asked the Stringers, along with Zac’s lawyer and the district attorney, to report later that week for a discussion. Zac had final exams that morning, so Roger drove the half-hour to the courthouse alone. He sat down on a wooden bench, and the judge approached him.
“Who are you?” the judge asked.
“I’m Roger Stringer, sir,” he said. “Zac’s father.” Though he had spent hours testifying before the judge, Roger looked different than he had at the trial nearly six years earlier. His black hair had turned grey; his skin was now wrinkled and weathered.
Fortner arrived, and Judge Harrell ushered the defense attorney and Kittrell into his chambers. Roger chatted with Zac’s probation officer, then sat down in the second row to wait. After 15 minutes, the judge emerged with a decision. He wanted to pull the rifle out of the Marion County evidence room, allow each side to examine it, then hold an evidentiary hearing as soon as possible.
For years, Roger has used all his vacation days to fight for his son. He’d taken a day off work for the hearing and now wasn’t sure how to spend the afternoon. To pass the time, he called Barber and the few friends he knew were waiting for news.
Back home, when Zac returned from school later that afternoon, Roger told him they’d won this round. Zac didn’t smile or celebrate. Instead, he asked his father the one question Roger refused to ask himself: “What if there is no glue in there?”
Zac hadn’t talked about his feelings since he’d gotten out of prison; they’d only had intimate conversations back in the deer stands. But Roger wondered if his son worried that he’d turn on him.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Roger said. “Look at how far we have come.”
Barber had reassured Roger that Zac’s case did not rest on the examiners’ finding. He had found indications of other problems with the X-Mark Pro. In an internal memo from 2004, a Remington employee complained that the company had reduced the quality of surface finishes to an “all-time low,” creating friction troubles that caused the triggers to malfunction. It was just one document, not the on-the-record testimony Remington’s engineer had given about Loctite, but Roger believed the trigger had other flaws that no one had uncovered yet.
Zac left to play videogames with new friends he’d met in college, and Roger stepped into the backyard. It was the first cool day of fall, the kind of crisp afternoon that used to remind him of the woods. Hunting season started in a few weeks, but Roger knew that he’d never go out again.