Gun crime in the U.S. far outpaces other high-income countries — and has for more than a century.
During Prohibition, Al Capone and other American gangsters used Thompson submachine guns, nicknamed “Tommy guns,” to take down their rivals in headline-grabbing shootings, prompting the earliest federal legislation around firearms and public safety. The 1934 National Firearms Act set the stage for the first-ever showdown between the gun industry and the federal government — with companies like Colt claiming that if Congress curtailed sales of some firearms, the industry would buckle, threatening the country’s position as a military power.
Today’s criminals aren’t using Tommy guns. But tensions around gun regulations remain, as do claims that the industry’s bottom line would be harmed by legislative actions meant to lower firearm deaths.
In the fourth episode of The Gun Machine, we go to Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the industry, where nearly every young person we talked to has a story about guns and the terror they cause in their community.
Alain Stephens: This is Damion Johnson.
[Damion Johnson: If you see me scanning the road, I’m not looking for anybody specific, but you’re always on the lookout for your YPs.]
Alain Stephens: Today, Damion’s looking for YPs, a term he uses for young people. To get specific, young people between the ages of 16 and 24. The demographic of people who are the primary drivers of urban violence. And the primary victims of that violence. Damion used to be in this age group. He used to be a gang leader. An underground gunsmith.
[Damion Johnson: I didn’t build ghost guns ‘cause they didn’t exist, but I would make decorations on people’s barrels. I would add all sorts of fancy attachments.]
Alain Stephens: In a prior lifetime, he’d service this city’s criminal element with custom firepower.
[Damion Johnson: I had like a nice little dremel tool and I’d do fancy designs, and they were usually gang-related. Um, but in all reality, I was just fascinated with firearms. You know, as a child here in America, you are, that shit is implemented in your life, right out the womb.]
Alain Stephens: But now Damion Johnson has a new mission: He’s trying to stop people from fucking killing each other.
[Damion Johnson: These guys aren’t mad at me. I’m worried about them going out and shooting somebody else and then having to deal with the cascading problems that come from there.]
Alain Stephens: Damion is not a cop. He is armed with nothing. No body armor. No weaponry. Just a notepad, a cell phone, and a couple of loose cigarettes. He’s part of an organization called ROCA, a national program meant to disrupt cycles of violence among YPs — from gang retaliation to simple interpersonal beefs between armed youth. ROCA’s mission is to put some brakes on escalating tensions in neighborhoods across the country, and they do that by mixing a powerful cocktail — applied cognitive behavioral therapy and a relentless commitment to showing up, at your work, at your house. Whatever it takes.
[Damion: Once you’re Roca, you are Roca for life. We will never turn you away. We will never not help you.]
Alain Stephens: We’re about to spend all damn day finding this out. Damion is gonna crisscross a city landscape for hours, with us riding shotgun, to roll up on people Damion knows are carrying. And, if he needs to, talk them down. And let me ask you a question real quick. Where do you think we are? Detroit? Dallas? Chicago? D.C.? Nah. Damion’s trying to do all this in the middle of Springfield, the Capital of Gun Valley. It’s a city of about 150,000 people in western Massachusetts, and a city sliced in half by a highway that takes people from New England to New York City. The birthplace of basketball and Dr. Seuss. And, the American gun industry, an industry that is now dying in Springfield.
[News clip: Smith & Wesson has been based here in Springfield since it was incorporated back in 1852. After vetting a number of cities and states they made the decision to relocate 750 jobs and its headquarters to Maryville, Tennessee.]
Alain Stephens: Leaving guys like Damion, to live with their ghosts, back here in Springfield.
[Damion Johnson: Smith & Wesson is leaving New England, going down South so they can sell assault rifles. It’s like it won’t change.]
Alain Stephens: You see, Damion is living in a world where the dams against a flood of guns for civilians have always been broken, if they ever existed at all. Even before we got in the car with him, we asked Damion what he sees while doing his work.
[Damion Johnson: A lot of people are dabbling in ghost guns because they’re cheaper, but Smith & Wesson is pretty much the most common.]
Alain Stephens: Damion knows what most other people in Springfield know — that the celebrated capital of Gun Valley is now part of a main artery for drug trafficking. And the two go together. A match made in hell.
[Damion Johnson: I know a lot of people come up here, uh, will come down here from like Vermont, and usually the weapons they’re selling are all Smith & Wesson.]
Alain Stephens: Last year in Springfield, 17 people were injured by gunshots; 13 were killed. But as of September of this year, that number has already jumped to 32 wounded and 26 dead, meaning Damion has his work cut out for him.
[Damion Johnson: There’s a video floating around right now of a guy here in Springfield pissing on another individual’s grave, which is gonna cause so much chaos. But stuff like that is common.]
Alain Stephens: As a gun reporter, I tell people that guns are symbols. It’s why we fight over them so hard. For many people owning a gun isn’t about using it. Hell, most American guns are probably sitting under a bed collecting dust. But owning a gun has meaning. For some, it’s a political statement. For others, it’s a belief in something. Perhaps it’s “Might makes right,” or “Don’t trust the government,” or just “Guns are fun.” But they’re also pragmatically, and simply, the tool of the trade. And that trade is crime. Today, we are going to talk about the brutal byproduct of being the best at dealing guns and the customer the gun industry doesn’t want you to think about — criminals. This is The Gun Machine: How America Was Forged by the Gun Industry. From WBUR and The Trace. Chapter 4: “Triggermen.”
Alain Stephens: If you want to know why there’s a seemingly never-ending supply of guns in cities across America right now, you have to go back to San Antonio, 1934, where Hyman Lehman is doing what he does best. If you’re gangster, a bank robber, a kidnapper, or any level of professional outlaw, Lehman is your man. That’s according to Ron Franscell, a crime writer who has studied Texas outlaw history.
Ron Franscell: In the thirties, the 1930s, he opened up a little saddle shop and he made bridles and harnesses and obviously saddles.
Alain Stephens: During the day, Lehman would operate as a non-descript leather maker. But at night, he was the Mozart of modding, customizing, and selling automatic weapons.
Ron Franscell: He’s this saddle maker upstairs and then in his basement he’s doing these gun modifications that, again, they’re not illegal at the time, but they’re bringing a very interesting clientele.
Alain Stephens: His weapons would fill the arsenals of some of the most infamous criminals of the era: Al Capone, Irish Bootlegger Roger Toughy, and the ruthless bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd. Lehman would sell one of the eponymous machine guns to Machine Gun Kelly. He’d transform run-of-the-mill hunting rifles into fully automatics for John Dillinger and his crew, creating a criminal prototype of the modern assault rifle. And of course there was Lehman’s pièce de résistance, what he’d call the “baby machine gun.”
Ron Franscell: His specialty was modifying pistols into these rather strange, scary looking automatic weapons, with big clips and handles on them like a Tommy gun would have.
Alain Stephens: A modified Colt pistol that could dump a magazine’s worth of bullets in seconds, a favorite by none other than Baby Face Nelson, who’d use one to kill an FBI agent and wound three others.
Ron Franscell: There’s a big shootout between the government and some of Babyface[’s] and some of Dillinger’s people. When the smoke clears the FBI finds one of these modified handguns.
Alain Stephens: The FBI would track the gun back to Lehman. But here is the kicker: There wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. While Lehman was the arms don of the underworld, he didn’t break any laws. Because at the time, machine guns were totally legal.
Ron Franscell: At any rate, he never serves a day in jail. He doesn’t pay any significant fines.
Alain Stephens: And it was guys like him that were pushing the federal government to its boiling point, which has been a long time coming. You see, things have gotten a lot crazier from when we last left off on the history of the gun machine. During the bloody conflict that would eventually “close” the West, gun companies like Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington, and Winchester become burgeoning empires in their own right — selling not only to the U.S. government, but also civilians, through some of the first advanced advertising and marketing campaigns. But the gun industry is about to push its already successful American endeavor to the next level, thanks to what would be called the Second Industrial Revolution. In the late 19th century, technologies and manufacturing start to advance with hyperspeed, in part because of the manufacturing processes first perfected in Springfield to make guns decades earlier. The gun industry is able to make advancements quicker and costs cheaper. In 1902 Hiram Maxim, son of the machine gun inventor, would invent and sell the first successful silencer. He’d use the same technology to patent the automobile muffler. Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland, and author of six books on gun policy, says the gun industry is about to go through radical changes, because the needs of the U.S. government were about to change.
Robert Spitzer: The other thing that was happening, late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, was that there was concern about modernizing the military.
Alain Stephens: American policy was about to go international. Up until this moment the U.S. military doctrine was firmly planted here, in the U.S. But soon, at the crux of the 20th century, American boots were being planted across international borders. The first machine gun adopted by the military would be used in the Spanish-American War, alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The first semiautomatic pistol to be adopted by the military in the form of the Colt 1911 was produced from the demands of the oft-forgotten Philippine-American War. But it was America’s big international debut that really upped the power curve: World War I.
[President Woodrow Wilson: 3,000 miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake.]
Alain Stephens: This is a moment I can’t emphasize enough. The US had already entered the world stage with consequential wins during the Spanish-American War. Now, in the aftermath of World War I, America begins to cement that new identity as a force capable of sustaining its influence on global politics and economies. We try on the hat of being the world police, and we start to like the way we look. And that is all fueled by an aggressive and capable private weapons industry. Decades later, President Ike Eisenhower, a war hero himself, would label it the “military-industrial complex.”
[President Dwight Eisenhower: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.]
Alain Stephens: But that military-industrial complex kicks off here, in the aftermath of World War I. By the time it’s over, American-made firearms, and what they can do, are on a totally new playing field. But they’re just about to be stuck on the sidelines.
Phil Klay: The Tommy Gun, the Thompson machine gun, was developed as a trench clearing tool, right? But by the time it gets really into production, World War I is over.
Alain Stephens: This is Phil Klay, who wrote about the gun industry for the New Yorker and in his book, Uncertain Ground. Combine practically zero gun restrictions and companies with a whole lot of new product, suddenly, weapons like the Thompson submachine gun and the Browning automatic rifle hit the civilian market.
Phil Klay: There are actual advertisements where they’re selling it for the protection of ranches. And there’s an advertisement where there’s a guy with a Thompson machine gun, which is not a good range weapon. And off in the distance, there’s a couple people on horses and one of them is slumped in the saddle, right?
Alain Stephens: Compounded with historical unemployment from the Great Depression and a prohibition which builds empires for liquor slinging kingpins and the results are pure mayhem. Gangsters are machine gunning each other down in the street, sometimes in broad daylight. And it’s not just organized crime. In addition to the heavier firepower technology, like the telephone and the automobile, give way to newer, advanced-level criminal activity. We’re talking kidnapping for ransom, serial bank robbing, and professional hijackings. The drive-by shooting is literally invented during this time. And it’s not just machine guns either. Those weapons were expensive for their time, only commanding the highest and most dedicated professionals of the criminal trade. But, industrialization also sprouts out more cost-effective, low-ticket weapons. They spread like wildfire.
Robert Spitzer: These cheap handguns began to make their way into cities in particular and were associated with the rise, not only in crime, but, of violent crime because criminals are increasingly carrying these small, cheap, easily concealable handguns.
Alain Stephens: Numbers vary, but according to Census mortality stats, the national homicide rate jumps 40 percent under prohibition. Everyone’s shooting everyone. States and cities can’t contain the explosion of crime. Someone even takes a shot at then-President-elect Franklin Roosevelt.
[Newsreel: President-elect finishes his impromptu talk and prepares to drive out of the railway station when … *three gunshots*, *a woman’s screams*.]
Alain Stephens: And that’s when big government had enough.
Robert Spitzer: It was easier to buy a machine gun than it was all kinds of other things. You just put your money down and walked out with the gun.
Alain Stephens: Spitzer says the feds bankrolled the development of these new weapons for the war, but at home the availability of these guns had the fed feeling buyers remorse.
Robert Spitzer: We also saw, not only a vigorous government action to get the country out of the Depression, but also the government entering new areas, new policy areas where it had not been involved.
Alain Stephens: People were beginning to look for answers in a country that, at the time, was looking apocalyptic. This environment opens the doors for America’s first federal gun control legislation: the National Firearms Act.
Robert Spitzer: Even though this law didn’t completely bar or prohibit weapons ownership, the fact of establishing a fairly strict regulatory regime had the desired effect. That is to say, fully-automatic weapons pretty much were eliminated from criminal use, from the 1930s up to the present.
Alain Stephens: This was nearly a hundred years ago, and honestly some of the testimony reads like an alternate universe. There are no recordings, so we had our colleagues read the transcripts, including where the president of the NRA says something that the organization would never say today.
[Karl Frederick: I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.]
Alain Stephens: And the Second Amendment? It hardly ever comes up. You even have gun manufacturers saying that they’re fine with Congress making it illegal to manufacture certain types of guns. When Colt VP Fred Nichols is asked about submachine guns, he tells Congress …
[Fred Nichols: Frankly, gentlemen, it should not be manufactured.]
Alain Stephens: But when it comes to even the proposal of a tax on small arms, that’s when you start to see the roots of the arguments we’re bombarded with today — that the gun industry is special and needs to be protected differently than other industries. The Colt VP reminds Congress of his company’s illustrious history. Colt has been there for you for nearly a hundred years, he says. A tax on some of their best-selling products would be a betrayal.
[Fred Nichols: We might stop making and selling pistols. I wonder if you gentlemen want that to be brought about. We were very valuable to the government during the war. We cannot maintain a plant to assist the government in case of war, unless we can stay in business.]
Alain Stephens: Think about what he’s saying. “You tax our products and we might not be here for you in the next world war.” And if you like being a big military power, there are some things you have to leave alone. Of course, we can’t interview the Colt VP to see if he was making this argument in good faith, if he really thought extra federal taxes on small arms would sink his business. But, think about the world war that’s just barely in the rearview mirror … and what’s already brewing in Europe.
Alain Stephens: You can see how members of Congress might be swayed to follow the gun industry’s lead. Nichols gets his way. The National Firearms Act passes with no special taxes on handguns, even though they were the most commonly used in crimes then, just as they are now. Congress does impose a $200 tax cost on machine guns, short-barrelled rifles, and suppressors. And that tax is still the same today, no adjustment for inflation. But despite the NFA’s limitations, it’s one of the most successful gun policies enacted in American history. The effects cannot be denied. Since its enactment nearly 90 years ago, the criminal use of suppressors, automatic weapons, sawed-off shotguns, and rifles have been nearly eliminated. And as someone who has interviewed countless federal agents and police officers with decades of experience, I can tell you that, up until very recently, coming across such weapons in the criminal underground was exceedingly rare — which is a bit of an ignored testament to just how effective this policy is. I mean, for nearly a century the federal government has maintained a list of licensed gun owners carrying arguably the most dangerous weapons allowed on the market, and you don’t hear of raids or infringement. In fact, the major complaint typically is that licensing can be slow; the biggest enemy of the Second Amendment here simply being bureaucracy. The National Firearms Act may have mitigated the use of criminals carrying machine guns and the like, but it did little to stop the appetite whetted by gun companies to advance firearms technology. And criminals wouldn’t ignore it. My beat at The Trace is not just that of a gun violence reporter, in fact, my specialty is that of emerging violence reporter — that’s new guns and technologies and how criminals use them. So this is something I study, and I’m going to tell you guys a secret — criminals aren’t stupid. In fact, many times it’s criminals that are some of the earliest adopters of new gun technology. And this gap has jumped sharply since the internet. New weapons, criminal guncraft, and new ways to acquire firepower are transferred on forums, social media, chat rooms. Which brings us back to Springfield, and Damion.
[Roca 2: Springfield is a bad place, man. No bueno. It’s no bueno.]
Alain Stephens: More after the break.
Alain Stephens: We’re back in Springfield in the summer of 2023, and back to Damion as one of the only people trying to stem the flood of violence.
[Alain Stephens: So you’ve been doing this for a minute. Have you noticed a change in the guns people’ve been carrying?]
[Damion Johnson: Um, of course. Um, a lot of guys now, you know, back in the day, you’re lucky if you were to get your hands on like a little .32 Jennings or something like that. Now it’s so common [that] these guys want, they want assault rifles, specifically AK-47s. Um, I seen a kid running around with a SCAR-H, which is like a military weapon.]
Alain Stephens: In Springfield, there are 170 young people they are trying to keep tabs on, to keep open communication with and, to perhaps, intervene. But, it is also a snapshot into the world of guns available on the streets. Soon, we pull up to our first contact, a former incarcerated immigrant. We catch him at his job as a landscaper.
[Damion Johnson: He’s a migrant. He’s struggling with a lot of immigration stuff right now. He is a workaholic, so I’m always impressed with him. The kid works more than me, and I work 10 hours a day.]
Alain Stephens: Due to the nature of the gun violence in their communities, we aren’t using anyone’s names.
[Roca 1: And it’s sad ‘cause I’ve been in jail myself, and I’m in there locked up with the guys and we’re chopping it up, and like, yeah man. And then they’re like, oh, when I go back out I’m gonna go grab me this and go grab me that.]
Alain Stephens: He’s young, barely 5’ 6” and probably 140 pounds soaking wet. And he says that the primary driver of criminal gun buying is simply an addiction to violence. It’s living in a neighborhood with territories controlled by gangs which dictate where you can and can’t go, who you can and can’t interact with. And if these rules are broken, it’s only a matter of time before the shooting starts. And with that it probably won’t stop, because no law is greater in many communities than simply revenge.
[Roca 1: You know, sometimes it’s just like the paranoid aspect about it that you’ve been with this lifestyle that you think you’re all constantly looking over your shoulder, you know.]
Alain Stephens: And so for that, he says, the answer for many people is to arm themselves to the teeth, with Glocks, Tec-9’s, drum magazines, whatever firepower they can get.
[Roca 1: That’s the lifestyle that you choose. You live by the gun, you die by the gun.]
Alain Stephens: Springfield is no urban crime hole by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, part of the reason we came here is because, with a population of about 150,000 people, it’s a city that rings so similar to many other mid-sized cities across the nation. There’s a Springfield in 34 states. And as a reporter for The Trace, I know what a lot of people don’t realize: that when you look at the worst statistics on gun violence in America, you’re zooming in on a lot of cities just like Springfield, Massachusetts — places where manufacturing dried up, and they’re now struggling with the ghosts of unemployment, dilapidated buildings, and treading to keep their head above water under a national wave of opioid addiction. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise when we walk into a Puerto Rican bakery on Main Street that we immediately see a guy who is open carrying a sidearm, and from one of the gunmakers that helped build the city. So we have to ask him …
[Alain Stephens: What made you choose the Smith & Wesson?]
[Celestino Martinez: It’s a local company, you know?]
[Alain Stephens: Yeah, so that factored into it?]
[Celestino Martinez: Yeah, it factored into a lot. I mean, they’ve been around for a while. Um, and I have a Ruger at home. I have a couple of ‘em now. But whenever it’s something local, like businesses like this, you know, you have to pay into it, you know? It’s stuff to keep it around. If not, it’s gonna go overseas. Um, we’ve seen Halmark go overseas. We’ve seen LEGO, that was once here, go overseas. So it’s like, those businesses, we want to keep ‘em here.]
Alain Stephens: Celestino Martinez seems relaxed talking about this at a lunch counter. He’s got a license to carry. But there’s a lot of neighbors who don’t. Last year, police recovered 314 guns, putting Springfield second behind Boston in the state — a state, which mind you, has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. But those laws don’t make a lot of difference to some people we meet today, like Damion’s second stop.
[Alain Stephens: Tell me about your day so far, man. Let’s start off light.]
[Roca 2: Um, pretty good. I worked the overnight last night. Just been home with my son, chillin’.]
Alain Stephens: We’ve been told that on most days, Damion’s contact stays perpetually armed. And if dude comes out with a fanny pack on, it means he’s strapped. He doesn’t. Instead, he’s in a black hoodie, black beard, the tired eyes of a new dad.
[Roca 2: He’s one and a half. He’s gonna be two. And I have a stepson that’s six.]
Alain Stephens: When we meet at the curb in front of his place, he seems poised, even postured, like the sky is about to fall at any given moment. And quickly, the conversation ain’t so light.
[Roca 2: That’s how it is out here. Literally, like, uh, I think last month somebody died at their kid’s bus stop on right down the street on Belmont.]
Alain Stephens: He’s grown up here and has pretty much seen everything. He provides a window into a neighborhood, in many ways, at war. And before we know it, we’re holding court on the variety of weapons that have made its way here to Springfield.
[Alain Stephens: Glock?]
[Roca 2: Yeah.]
[Alain Stephens: AK?]
[Roca 2: Yeah.]
[Alain Stephens: Draco?]
[Roca 2: Yeah. Somebody just got caught out here, I think a year and a half ago, with an AK. They shot up somebody’s car on a Boston Road.]
[Alain Stephens: You seen a switch Glock? The auto-sear?]
[Roca 2: Yeah. Binary trigger. Glock.]
[Alain Stephens: You seen a binary trigger? AR, AR pistols?]
[Roca 2: Yeah, definitely.]
[Alain Stephens: Did you see anyone with revolvers or anything like that?]
[Roca 2: Uh, yeah. .357s, .44s, .380s, .38 Specials. It’s normal. It’s sad to say, but it’s normal out here. It’s like, it really is normal. Like, people that I’ve grown up with, .50 BMG snipers. What do you need a sniper for?]
[Alain Stephens: Right.]
[Roca 2: Exactly. That’s my point. The sniper [rifle]’s this tall. And they’ll literally have it in a trunk of a car. Like, it makes no sense.]
[Alain Stephens: And for people who don’t know, like, the bullet that that thing shoots is like …]
[Roca 2: It’s the size of your hand, from the bottom to the top of your middle finger. That’s how big a .50 BMG is. And it’s, uh, probably like an inch thick.]
Alain Stephens: To explain, the Barret .50 cal is an anti-material rifle. The bullet size is near the maximum allowed under federal law for civilian use. A gun so big it’s known to be used to take out engine blocks in military applications. Cartels have used them to take down helicopters. And it’s also here, floating in the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Mass. But the byproduct of all these guns isn’t just death. In fact, most guns used in crimes are still overwhelmingly handguns. The byproduct most significantly absorbed is, simply, fear.
[Roca 2: I can’t say I can’t come outside, ‘cause I can come outside. I just don’t like to come outside.]
[Alain Stephens: At all?]
[Roca 2: Nah. Springfield is a bad place, man. No bueno. It’s no bueno.]
Alain Stephens: For him gun violence isn’t a school shooting five states away. It’s not even really reported on the news. His gun violence is right down the street. Five years ago, nearly a hundred feet away from his front yard, where we are standing and talking, his best friend was shot and killed.
[Roca 2: I see the people that … I know who killed him, and I know the people who are affiliated with him, and I see those people every day. Literally, that white house at the end of the street that you can see with your eyes? Literally right in front of that house. We have memorials every year for him in front of that fence.]
[Alain Stephens: Is there anything out there to commemorate or anything?]
[Roca 2: Um, they wrote his name on the sidewalk, but it washed away over the years. He died five years ago. So …]
[Alain Stephens: I’m sorry, man.]
[Roca 2: It’s normal. It is not normal, but it’s normal.]
Alain Stephens: As a reporter who has covered this topic for years now, I feel the same way. Hearing stuff like this is no longer a shock. It’s more like a confirmation. Tales like these are merely a snapshot of what I’ve seen over the years, echoed in countless court documents, interviews, and experiences, in evidence lockers, and ballistics labs. It’s a trickle of violence that has become almost mundane to the American conscience. But for Damion, it stays at the top of his. Particularly as someone who in a previous lifetime, was not only involved in criminal activity and gang life, but was obsessed with firearms at a young age.
[Damion Johnson: I think it was an M1 Garand that I pulled apart. That was my first one. Um, that’s when I was trying to learn about how gas gauges work in a weapon, and it popped on me. It didn’t blow up, but I didn’t use the right tool, so I was just cranking, cranking, cranking, and that shit shot out, so then I had to research. Back then there was only a library that you have access to internet in, and I’d go in there and not think anything about it, and I’m all over the internet looking for this shit. Good times.]
Alain Stephens: And Damion shared this fascination with someone else.
[Damion Johnson: My younger brother.]
Alain Stephens: And this is where things take a turn for the worse. According to court reports, in 2012 Damion was messing around with a gun, and he accidentally killed his younger brother. He’d be charged with involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to three and a half years. If you kill your brother who you love by accident and go directly to prison, let me tell you something — you are not necessarily going to act right. You might be emotionally shattered. You might get put into solitary.
[Damion Johnson: I was in the hole for like a month and a half straight. And, um, in there, all I had to do was think.]
Alain Stephens: His defense attorney would actually plead mercy to court, saying Damion was in constant agony during his incarceration over what he’d done. But, it was in there he said he’d make a change. He’d start by getting his education, and then, upon release, he’d dedicate himself to ROCA. He says he has fought hard over the last 17 years to shake that old perception of himself. He is pragmatic in the way he describes his job, the streets, and unflinching in explaining the sheer amount of firepower that he and his organization must navigate every day to try and bring some sense of peace to a community. But, it is all still cemented in a very real place for Damion.
[Damion Johnson: My little brother was the kindest human being I know. He’s the only human being I’ve ever met that never actually wanted anything from me other than my company. He’s such a good person and it’s – it’s just a fucked up situation.]
Alain Stephens: We don’t know, and perhaps will never know, just how much gun companies make from the criminal purchase of their products. Part of that is due to the very secretive nature of gun companies at large and the government’s shroud of secrecy around the criminal misuse of their products. But we do know, as a commodity of scale, somewhere down the line someone is making money. Because according to the Department of Justice, between 2001 and 2021 over 7 million crime guns would be recovered and linked to crime scenes across the country. In a nation where teens flash automatically converted glocks, and where criminal organizations can source .50 caliber rifles, all of this has to elicit some sort of response. On the next episode of The Gun Machine, we talk about one of the gun industry’s best customers — the police.
Alain Stephens: The Gun Machine is a production of WBUR in partnership with The Trace. I’m your host, Alain Stephens. If you want more on this, or any of our other episodes, you should visit the TheTrace.org/GunMachine or WBUR.org/GunMachine.
If you feel like we are telling an important story, review the show on your podcast app and fill out The Gun Machine survey at WBUR.org/survey. You can sign up for The Trace’s newsletter to find more on this reporting at TheTrace.org.
Our producer, who always has my six, is WBUR’s Grace Tatter. Our editing fellow from The Trace is Agya Aning. Orchestrating our beat drops is sound designer Emily Jankowski. Our production manager is Paul Vaitkus. Our editors are Kevin Sullivan and WBUR Podcasts executive producer Ben Brock Johnson. Additional editing from Miles Kohrman. Our WBUR managing producer is Samata Joshi. And our engagement editor at The Trace is Gracie McKenzie. Audio engineering from Tim Felten and our artwork is by Diego Mallo.
Special thanks to WBUR executive editor of news Dan Mauzy; The Trace’s executive editor Craig Hunter, WBUR chief content officer Victor Hernandez, associate director of institutional giving Nicole Leonard, director of marketing Kristen Holgerson and Jessica Coughlin of Onward and Upward media; Tali Woodward, editor-in-chief at The Trace; and Margaret Low, CEO of WBUR.
Support for the Gun Machine comes from The Joyce Foundation, a nonpartisan philanthropy that invests in racial equity and economic mobility in the Great Lakes region. For more than 25 years, Joyce has supported research, education, and policy solutions to reduce gun violence and make communities safer. To learn more, go to joycefdn.org. Additional funding provided by the Kendeda Fund.