Edris Thomas lives in Dallas. I’ve known her since forever, because she’s my mom’s closest friend. Her son and I grew up together. Like so many Americans, Edris lost someone to a gun. In the eight years I’ve reported on guns and gun violence, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about a lot of very hard things. But for me, this conversation was the hardest.
My dad’s name was John Stephens. He was amazing, smart, a hard worker, Edris told me when I interviewed her for the podcast I’ve been working on this year, The Gun Machine. “He cared a lot about people, and actually became like a big brother to me,” she said.
He served in the Air Force, like I would, where I’d learn how to pitch a tent, drive a stick shift, wax a car. I didn’t know it when I was younger, but I’d inherit so much more from him. “He was that person that would spend countless hours reading books, making phone calls, asking the experts and professionals,” Edris said.
I was close to my dad. He was stoic. Quiet. He worked as an air traffic controller in one of the busiest airports in the nation. And then, one day, life as we all knew it would change.
Edris was a flight attendant then, and out on a trip that day. When she landed in Little Rock, Arkansas, she saw she had a bunch of missed calls — but she was tired, so she didn’t respond. She went to the hotel and took a nap, waking up to more missed calls. “Something in my gut told me that something was terribly wrong.”
The last person to call her was my Aunt Celina. When Edris called back, she says, “All I could hear was screams.”
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On Monday, February 25th, 2008, my dad took his own life. He was 50 years old. I was just 21. He never showed any signs of depression, addiction, or mental illness. And to this day, I still really don’t know why.
I was the one who found him. I called the police that day, and when they arrived, there were no condolences offered, no words of comfort. In fact, they’d sprawl me alongside a patrol car, frisk me for weapons, and make me sign an affidavit of what I’d seen. To them, I was merely a bystander.
Edris told me the day is a blur in her memory, but she remembers seeing the side of my head first that day: “I could tell by your posture, that you were broken, and it broke me.” When she finally saw my face, she remembered a look of “just utter shock and disbelief.”
I returned to the home I grew up in to find a puncture in the drywall. And a hole cut in the carpet where he last stood. On that day, I became one of the millions of Americans who carry the memories of those lost at the end of a gun.
For every person torn away from this planet because of gun violence, a multitude of people are left behind, trying to figure out exactly what to do. In the course of reporting this show, I met other Americans reckoning with the unpredictable trajectory of loss.
For Damion Johnson, it would mean turning from gang leader to peacemaker. As a young person in Springfield, Massachusetts, Johnson was an underground gunsmith — “fascinated with firearms,” he told me. He shared that fascination with his younger brother until messing around with a gun resulted in a tragic accident. Damion was sentenced to more than three years for involuntary manslaughter, and while incarcerated decided to make a change. He’d start by getting his education, and then, upon release, he’d dedicate himself to Roca — a national program meant to disrupt cycles of violence in cities like Springfield. Today, 17 years later, Damion spends his days crisscrossing the city, showing up for young men in whom he sees his former self: “Once you’re Roca, you are Roca for life. We will never turn you away. We will never not help you.”
While Damion focuses on pulling young people out of gun violence, Aaliyah Stewart wants to provide kids a refuge so they can avoid it altogether. When she was 7 years old, Aaliyah lost a brother to gun violence. And then, when she was 13, Aaliyah lost her other brother, the same damn way. These days, though, Aaliyah is fighting back against the reason she had to grow up fast, addressing gun violence in her hometown of Gary, Indiana, in her own way. At 23, she’s the founder of a day camp in the basement of a church giving kids a place to hang out — and access to mental health services. “I wanted to build something that people that lost a loved one or siblings to gun violence could see, like, there still is hope, there’s still potential, and it doesn’t end here,” she told us.
That access to mental health support is key for survivors, Angela Schellenberg told me. After losing her father to a sudden shooting, Angela eventually became a grief counselor — helping people like me, the leftovers, deal with the aftermath of this specific type of loss. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just done pro-bono work because there were survivors that just couldn’t afford it. I think it is such a crime, you know, that we have such a gun problem in America, but we are not willing to back this up with help.”
What I learned from these conversations: In a world of countless dead, one death has to matter.
It’s about bringing utility to their pain, and their loss.
For me, that led to becoming a journalist. Trying to make sense of the senseless.
Trying to understand why we as a leading developed country stand as an anomaly in domestic death.
And fighting to unravel the story of guns in America. In my time covering this beat, I’ve come to see more clearly how they’re shrouded in myth, marketing, and politics that prevents us from understanding how to solve the problem of gun violence.
At The Trace, we’ve started to poke some holes in the veil of secrecy — exposing how the U.S, government and the gun industry have been intertwined since the very beginning. How bad gun dealers are let off the hook, and the Pandora’s box that has led an explosion of ghost guns and machine guns on American streets.
But these are just glimpses behind a curtain. A curtain we need to shred to pieces to expose the truth about what’s killing us: Why we’re addicted to gun violence, how guns are being used to instill crime and death, and who in authority is ultimately failing us.
To me, as a journalist, there is no greater shame than to watch a nation not only die, but die in ignorance. In the shade. In concentrated darkness. If we’re gonna die, we will know what’s killing us.
The final episode of The Gun Machine also features a conversation with Dr. Zirui Song about what it means to survive a shooting, and with Stefanie Feldman, who was recently tapped to lead the first ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, about how the federal government can better support survivors. Listen to all eight episodes via your favorite podcast app. The Gun Machine is also available on WBUR’s site and on Here & Now from NPR and WBUR.
This episode contains mentions of suicide. Please take care while listening. For people in need, call or text 988.
Alain Stephens: Having reported in this world, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about a lot of very hard things. But for me, this one is the hardest.
[Edris Thomas: I’m Edris Thomas and … Wait, I need to start over.]
Alain Stephens: This is Edris. She lives in Dallas, Texas, where I’m from. She’s older now, a grandmother. But for me, I’ve known her since forever.
[Edris Thomas: I’m Edris Thomas, and I’ve known you since you were four years old.]
Alain Stephens: She’s a family friend. She’s the closest friend to my mom. And her son and I grew up together down here in Texas. But, like so many Americans, she too, lost someone to a gun. His name was John Stevens. And if you can’t tell, it’s very difficult.
[Alain Stephens: Can you tell me about my dad?]
[Edris Thomas: Yeah, I can tell you, uh, a lot about your dad. He was amazing. He was smart. Was a hard worker. Cared a lot about people. Um, and actually became like a big brother to me.]
Alain Stephens: I was close to my dad. He was stoic, quiet. He served in the Air Force, like I would, where I’d learn how to pitch a tent, drive a stick shift, wax a car. And I didn’t know it when I was younger, but I’d inherit so much more from him.
[Edris Thomas: He was that person that would spend countless hours reading books, making phone calls. Asking the experts and professionals.]
Alain Stephens: He’d work as an air traffic controller in one of the busiest airports in the nation. And then, one day, life as we knew it would change.
[Edris Thomas: I was a flight attendant at the time. I went out on a trip. I landed in Little Rock and I had a bunch of missed calls. But I was tired. I’d been up since 3 a.m. I didn’t respond to them. I got to the hotel, I took a nap, and I was awakened, to more missed calls. Something in my gut told me that something was terribly wrong because they were your Aunt Celina and your mom. And I called the last caller back first, who was your Aunt Celina. And all I could hear was screams.]
Alain Stephens: Edris would be called to a police station. On Monday, February 25th, 2008, John Stevens, my dad, took his own life. He was 50 years old. I was just 21. He never showed any signs of depression, addiction, or mental illness. And to this day. I still really don’t know why.
[Edris Thomas: It’s kind of a blur. I just remember seeing your head. I remember seeing the side of your head. And I could tell by your, your, um, posture that you were broken. And it broke me.]
Alain Stephens: When I called the police and they arrived, there were no words of comfort, no condolences offered. In fact, they’d sprawl me alongside a patrol car, frisk me for weapons, and make me sign an affidavit of what I’d seen. To them, I was merely a bystander. Call it shame, call it shock, but up until this moment, this moment right here, where Edris and I are finally talking, no one in my family or immediate friends would ever speak to me about it. And it’d be a scene I’d be left to chew on alone.
[Edris Thomas: When I finally did see your face, all I remember was just the look of shock and disbelief, just utter shock and disbelief. I know that you were the one that found your dad, and uh, I just could not imagine what you were going through.]
[Alain Stephens: Why didn’t anyone talk to me?]
[Edris Thomas: This is such a difficult question for, for me to answer. Um, I just, I just knew that was too much. That there was no way that anyone could be okay. I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry, Alain. I just, I don’t know. It just felt so horrific. So big.]
Alain Stephens: I still really don’t know why he did what he did. But I know it hurt me. And everyone around him. Forever.
[Edris Thomas: And I couldn’t believe it. Only because he loved you guys so much. I didn’t understand why he gave up.]
Alain Stephens: I would return to the home I grew up in to find a puncture in the drywall and a hole cut in the carpet where he last stood. I am many things, but on that day I would enter a new demographic: the millions of Americans carrying the memories of those lost at the end of a gun. My name is Alain Stephens. This is The Gun Machine, Chapter 8: “The Leftovers.”
Alain Stephens: One of the things I fear most in this gun conversation, the thing that most Americans really don’t get, is the permanence of death — what it means to have your carpet cut out, to turn off a cell phone number, to let the credit card companies know he’s deceased. As a journalist, you begin to view death differently. You see how it reverberates through households, communities, and through lifetimes. And it bears a stark question: What happens to those left? And, while the dead find a sense of finality, it is those around and survived that carry the continued and invisible cost. Let’s start with the most hidden in plain sight.
[Newsclip: Nine people have been shot in Denver, three of the victims in critical condition // Four people were shot near Georgia State’s campus. One person in critical condition.]
Alain Stephens: The ones the bullet touched but didn’t take.
[Newsclip: At least six people were hurt, one in critical condition, after a gunman opened fire outside a nightclub.]
Alain Stephens: The wounded.
[Newsclip: As many as 15 people, including three children, are recovering from injuries after two drive by shooters opened fire on Halloween night in Chicago. Police say at least one person fired from a car into a crowd.]
Alain Stephens: Every year, 120,000 Americans will have their bodies pierced and perforated, bones exploded and organs eviscerated by the barrage of firepower available on the American market. And while they leave with their lives, they still do not return whole. They’re released into one of the most brutal and expensive healthcare systems in the developed world. An international study by the Commonwealth Fund found the United States ranks last in access, equity, and healthcare outcomes among 11 high-income nations in the world. And on top of that, we lead in violent assaults. It’s a problem researchers here in America are unraveling too.
Dr. Zirui Song: While most of the coverage was devoted to deaths, what seemed to be somewhat forgotten, some of the time, is that there is somewhere around two to three times as many people in America who are shot each year, but don’t die.
Alain Stephens: This is Dr. Zirui Song. He’s a primary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a health economist at Harvard Medical School, where he and his colleagues started digging into the lingering after effects of getting shot. What they found was when you do the math on violence, it starts to add up quick. Let’s start with the basics right out the gate. Research finds that if you’re wounded and survive in that first year, your medical spending will increase roughly 400 percent.
Dr. Zirui Song: Immediately after a firearm injury, the number of hospitalizations, doctor’s visits, images, lab tests, home health services, all of these healthcare services increased fairly sharply.
Alain Stephens: You now enter a world of X-rays and wheelchair ramps, reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. And the violence doesn’t just break the body, it breaks the mind.
Dr. Zirui Song: When people manage to survive those injuries, the impact of a non-fatal firearm injury appeared to be a 40 percent increase in pain disorders, a 51 percent increase in psychiatric disorders, and an 85 percent increase in substance use disorders over the first year after the non fatal firearm injury.
Alain Stephens: Even those closest to the injured suddenly become collateral damage. Song’s research found that family members of firearm injury survivors experienced a 12 percent increase in mental health disorders themselves: PTSD, depression, anxiety. For those who don’t know, it’s nightmares. It’s nausea. It’s a flood of tears at breakfast.
Dr. Zirui Song: Moms, uh, specifically have a 75 percent increase in mental health visits.
Alain Stephens: And when we look at parents whose children die from gun violence, the toll on the human mind is unbearable.
Dr. Zirui Song: We see a 2-to-5-fold increase, not a 30 percent increase, but a 2-to-5-fold increase in psychiatric disorders among family members of children who died from their firearm injuries.
Alain Stephens: When researchers calculated the economics of America shot and survived, the lost wages and cyclical doctor visits, care and trauma that ripples to families and caretakers, pain suddenly has a price tag, and it’s immense.
Dr. Zirui Song: In the U. S., the total economic toll of firearm injuries is about $557 billion per year. That is roughly 2. 5 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP.
Alain Stephens: $557 billion a year. Researchers at Everytown for Gun Safety, which is a funder of The Trace, got that number by calculating medical costs, criminal justice services, and the additional loss of worker productivity. The missed hours of labor, the empty desk chair or forklift, all of that adds up. Song and his colleagues then drill down into that number even further, looking into the expensive bill to health insurance, capturing the medical cost of the people left behind.
Dr. Zirui Song: When we look at adults and children mixed together, survivors who are both adults and children, on average they sustain a roughly four- fold increase in healthcare spending throughout that first year, after the injury. And so many of these folks were fairly healthy before their firearm injury. They did not have many doctors visits. They did not have many, or, if at all hospitalizations. But immediately after a firearm injury, the number of hospitalizations, doctors visits, images, lab tests, home health services — all of these healthcare services increased fairly sharply right after the firearm injury.
Alain Stephens: And Song reminds us that their study only captured the insured, noting that for many who experience gun injuries, they are unable to tap into any resources at all. And now America has turned into a nation in many ways carrying along its wounded.
Dr. Zirui Song: I think the data are pretty clear in telling us that we are all increasingly sharing the burden of firearm injuries together as a society.
Alain Stephens: Song says his work is led by the somewhat simple, yet brutal reality of gun violence: That while there is a clear moral cause to care for your fellow man, it is often economics that move people to action. Last year, 550 large-scale business owners wrote a letter demanding that Senate do something about gun violence. The CEOs and leaders of companies such as Bain Capital and Yahoo cited, among other things, that U.S. employers lose $1.4 million in productivity every day due to the cost of gun violence. And perhaps it’s a cost the halls of power can no longer ignore.
[News clip: From Lewiston, Maine, the scene of a horrific mass shooting here, at least 18 dead and at least 13 injured, several of them critically.]
Alain Stephens: These are the scenes from Lewiston, Maine, where a gunman took a Ruger SFAR 308 semi automatic rifle and ruined lives, a community, and a collective memory for the foreseeable future.
[News clip: Megan Hutchinson and her 10-year-old daughter Zoe were inside, Zoe’s leg grazed by a bullet. // I never thought I’d grow up and get a bullet in my leg. And it’s just like, like, why? Like, why do people do this?]
Alain Stephens: And it’s visions like these that have pushed our country to the brink. This fall, citing gun violence as a national epidemic, the Biden administration launches a new idea.
[President Biden: After every mass shooting, we hear a simple message. The same message all over the country.]
Alain Stephens: The first ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
[President Biden: Do something. Please do something. Do something to prevent the tragedies that leave behind survivors who will always carry the physical and emotional scars. Families who’ll never quite be the same. Communities overwhelmed by grief and trauma. Do something. Do something.]
Alain Stephens: And after the deadliest mass shooting of the year, we asked the White House, what can you do? That, after the break.
Alain Stephens: When we started reporting this podcast, the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention didn’t even exist. In September, after lobbying from advocacy groups, president Biden established the office, and it’s supposed to coordinate the federal response to mass shootings or sudden upticks in gun violence. So, think FEMA, but for guns. It’s also supposed to advance the president’s policy agenda. I have to admit, after years on this beat, I’m skeptical. Because we’ve seen so little action from the federal government when it comes to preventing gun violence at all. Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last year that aims to improve background checks, establish federal penalties for straw purchasers, like we heard about in Gary, Indiana, and expands mental health services. It’s the first major gun law in about 30 years. And in March, President Biden issued an executive order to reduce gun violence by cracking down on gun sellers who don’t perform background checks and releasing more information on federally licensed firearms dealers who violate the law. But there were some fresher ideas, too, like, improving federal support for survivors of gun violence, the wounded, and the people left behind. So when I sat down with the director of this new office, Stefanie Feldman, that’s one of the things that I wanted to know about. How can they actually help people who’ve been harmed with a gun?
[Alain Stephens: What can the Biden administration do to get some sort of aid packages or something to these people?]
[Stefanie Feldman: Yeah, people who survive gun violence, those are lifelong burdens that they will carry. And we can’t solve them, but we can help them and support them. In the early days after a shooting, for example, like the one in Maine, we can make sure that they are having access to mental health providers. The federal government can also help them navigate all sorts of different financial challenges that families face after losing a loved one. A mass shooting affects every part of a community, and the federal government needs to be doing more in order to be supporting these communities, just like we would after a hurricane or a natural disaster.]
[Alain Stephens: Let’s talk about Congress and federal support. Do you think this will be enough? I mean, when we look at the system that’s in place right now, we, we just dug out some numbers right here as part of this podcast. We found for 2013 to 2022, the federal government awarded over $16.6 billion to guns and ammunition companies. And it’s quite shocking because these gun companies, you know, go back to lobby into organizations that are opposing exactly the stuff that you guys are trying to put on the table right now. Do you think you can win in that system?]
[Stefanie Feldman: So, the federal government is a major purchaser of firearms for international defense work and domestic law enforcement. One thing that the President did earlier this year, he’s, he signed an executive order asking the Department of Defense, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, to come up with principles for promoting gun safety through our purchasing power. So recognizing that as a reality that we do need to purchase firearms as a government, but that gives us power to help shape the what the companies whom we’re purchasing from are doing. So that’s one step in order to advance the work going forward.]
[Alain Stephens: The gun industry definitely, especially in this country particularly, is very vocal about its opposition to any and all of these measures. If you would have to call on the gun industry in any sort of way to be responsive to gun violence, what would you call on them to to do?]
[Stefanie Feldman: So first, federally licensed firearms dealers, who are most of the people who are selling firearms to consumers every day, we have a clear mandate and a clear list of best practices and protocols that federal firearms licensees need to be, undertaking in order to be responsible. And that’s part of the work of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is to make sure that federal firearms licensees are conducting that work. Now, gun manufacturers is a little trickier, but still, the federal government regulates and inspects much of the work of gun manufacturers. And that is, again, part of the work of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But there are some fundamental barriers, one being that there is not currently a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And until Congress enacts a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, we are limited in our ability to prevent companies from doing so. But, that is something that the President is not going to hesitate to continue to call out and to call for Congress to act.]
[Alain Stephens: Rifles of all types account for about, you know, 10%, right, of all recovered gun crimes. What is it about the assault rifle that still is kind of a number one thing for the Biden administration, and do you think it’s worth expending, right, what little currency you have on this kind of hill that, you know, most Americans are still dying from handguns?]
[Stefanie Feldman: Yeah, so I don’t think that, uh, we have to make a choice regarding going after handguns or assault weapons. And these are, this is one strategy for reducing gun violence, and it is one of a range of policies that we’re pushing for. We don’t have to accept that it’s a false choice between tackling mass shootings, or tackling community violence, tackling assault weapons, or tackling pistols getting into the wrong hands. We can do all of the above.]
[Alain Stephens: One of the hardest issues about, uh, reporting on this beat, right, is that we don’t know how bad this situation is. And part of that is because 90%of the gun companies are private. They don’t talk to us. They don’t have SEC filings. Because of PLCAA they don’t get sued, so that’s the other window. And then when it comes to the realm of government, I have to deal with law enforcement who’s extra secret. And on top of that is the ATF, which is so secret that we have done audits on their, how they honor FOIAs, and they honor less FOIAs than the FBI, the DEA, the CIA. It’s incredible how secret they are and how they just ignore basic public information law. On top of that, we know this is important because this is something that the NRA went after in the Tiahrt Amendment, which ripped trace information away from cities, communities, and reporters. So now we cannot go out and figure out which gun dealers have disproportionate, um, weapons in crimes. We can’t see any of that stuff. I can’t see if the ATF is doing their basic jobs, dude. So is there anything that y’all can do about the ATF and transparency? Cause we’re dying in the dark out here.]
[Stefanie Feldman: Yeah. Uh, so the President, uh, has repeatedly called for repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, which is what you were talking about, uh, to make sure that communities have access to trace information, uh, and some of this law enforcement information that they need to make decisions. Uh, and we continue to, to press on this in a number of angles. I hear you, uh, and, uh, share, uh, the belief that communities deserve to have the information to make informed choices in terms of law enforcement resources, public health resources, uh, and policies, all across the country.]
[Alain Stephens: So this story is personal to me. I, I lost my dad to suicide. Right. And so that’s why I became a reporter. Is there anything in this for you that fuels, fuels this work?]
[Stefanie Feldman: It is unfortunate how many people come to this work, um, because of personal stories. One person who lost his son once told me, um, “I don’t get to quit this work,” right? He’s, he said, “I go home every day, and gun violence is still all of my life because my son was taken by gun violence and I will be living this forever.” And I think about that multiple times a week when things are frustrating and tough. Um, so that’s how this is personal to me.]
[Alain Stephens: Thank you, so much. I appreciate you.]
[Stefanie Feldman: Thank you for sharing your story about your dad.]
Alain Stephens: On that, Stefanie Feldman is right. Every day there are hundreds of Americans who lose someone to gun violence. Who will be living with this forever. The hurt is beginning to mount. For every person torn away from this plane, a multitude of people are left behind, trying to figure out exactly what to do. This is Angela Schellenberg.
[Angela Schellenberg: It was on the five o’clock news and all we saw was two men have been shot and killed in an area home, and the names of the victims have not been identified yet.]
Alain Stephens: When she was 16 and her brother was 13, they’d find out through the nightly news that their father was killed. Schellenberg says he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
[Angela Schellenberg: He was execution-style shot once and tried to get away, and his shooter made him lay down and shot him again.]
Alain Stephens: She is now a grief counselor, and if her tone sounds off, even cold, it’s because she’s told this story countless times. But even more so, she says that it’s just part of the harsh reality of grieving — that those closest to violence speak of it almost clinically, often at the shock of those who haven’t seen it firsthand themselves. The critique even I’ve experienced. But when you lose someone you love violently, it fucks with you. It really does. And Angela says, it’s those questions of pain of death that victims wrestle with the most.
[Angela Schellenberg: It’s a, um, such a traumatic loss that the brain cannot make sense out of the un-make-sensible, if you will. And so what it does is it’s constantly ruminating, trying to understand what happened to our loved one.]
Alain Stephens: She specializes in working with gun violence survivors. From those who’ve lost people to homicides and suicides, to mass shootings. She’s written survivor’s guides and hosts her retreats for those grieving. She says that in the political debates, people who’ve watched their loved ones die at the end of the gun are not part of the conversation at all. Their grieving is written off as dramatic. They’re spoken about and not spoken to. And more pragmatically, devoid of any sort of mental health care, leaving the hurt to hurt more.
[Angela Schellenberg: There is no fund that says, “Hey, we’re going to help the gun violence survivors.” Like I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just done pro bono work because there were survivors that just couldn’t afford it. And I think our, I think it is such a crime, you know, that we have such a gun problem in America, but we are not willing to back this up with help.]
Alain Stephens: And guns in particular seem to exact a special type of grief. In mourning, the mind needs closure, and often the violence and the unknown cannot be expressed openly. In a world of political discord and vitriol, it’s hard to heal when no one will let you talk.
[Angela Schellenberg: They need to be able to talk about the details. Like, they need to be able to say, this is what happened and, um, you know, when my loved one was shot, I worry about did it hurt? Um, what were their thoughts? Uh, you know, where did the bullet enter? Where did it exit? Did they feel it? I mean, there’s so many questions that they have that, um, to a normal person would almost be just, like, so taboo to talk about. But when you’re in a group with other survivors who’ve experienced these same thoughts, they feel sort of normalized in being able to say the things that nobody really wants to hear because it’s too traumatic. I know that sounds so morbid and so awful, but it is post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s like you want to know, um, how they died. And you want to imagine what their thoughts were and if they were hurting. And there’s just so many questions it leaves.]
Alain Stephens: It’s at this moment, I have to turn off the camera because Angela is right. There’s not a day I don’t wake up thinking about finding my father in that room, seeing the blood-soaked carpets of my childhood home, and touching his chilled wrist. That’s my memory. And when people ask, why now, why didn’t you say something? I’d tell them I did. I mentioned it to friends and family and colleagues and editors. And I’d watch the room go cold. Because the biggest taboo will never be politics. It’ll always be death.
[Grace Tatter: This is how you normally drive here?]
[Alain Stephens: I’ve never been here since. So yeah, I don’t know. No one has.]
[Grace Tatter: No one has?]
[Alain Stephens: No.]
Alain Stephens: At the end of our reporting for this project, Gun Machine producer Grace Tatter and I visit my father’s grave site at the National Cemetery in Dallas. I haven’t been here since we buried him, and it takes a while for us to find his headstone, even though the cemetery is on a grid and I have the number.
[Alain Stephens: It’s gotta be somewhere around here.]
Alain Stephens: It’s a military cemetery, and all the headstones look the same. A field of light stone rectangles perfectly spaced out. Different names and dates. And all in identical font. But the longer the search goes on, the quieter I get. Almost scared to see my own last name on one of these tablets. And then, finally after walking around in circles, we’re in front of it.
[Grace Tatter: It’s funny, we did stand here before, and neither of us saw it.]
Alain Stephens: As a journalist, I’m supposed to give you the most accurate description of how I feel, to give you some sense of meaning. But I can’t find it. Out of the millions of words a writer is supposed to come up with, I can’t really say much at all.
[Alain Stephens: You know, you’re just so fucking mad. You know? You’re just fucking mad. I’m just mad.]
Alain Stephens: Every journalist has an origin story. This one was mine. And that’s the thing with the trajectory of loss — it’s so damn unpredictable. In a world of certain violence, it is the leftover that is the most uncertain, the X in the equation. It can turn a gang leader into a peacemaker, a child victim into a provider of child sanctuary, the grieving into a grief counselor. Because pain changes you. In some ways it softens you. In other ways it hardens you. And my final shape – pointed. It can have you trade gun for pen, and turn the last name on a tombstone into a byline, a citation in White House policy, in congressional bills, in international lawsuits, and that’s the only thing I could do try to make it make sense for me. But if you asked, I do not think that most Americans really understand what gun violence is — not yet. I offer no solutions in my reporting. I firmly stay in the problem department. And I don’t believe the killings will stop soon. This podcast is just the basics. When this tape wraps, I’ll go back to the beat, back to covering the ATF and crime, back to a laundry list of investigations my organization hardly has the manpower to carry. So I will leave you with this. I can’t tell you how this will end, but I can tell you how it will begin — with a warning. As the American demographic of those carrying the dead deepens and grows, so does the demand … for answers: names, dates, the players, and profiteers of violence. And that’s what we will look for. We will know what’s killing us. Because if we’re gonna die, we’re not going to die in the dark.
Alain Stephens: For people in need, you can call or text the Suicide Prevention line — 988. You can also find more resources around suicide prevention at TheTrace.org/SuicidePrevention.
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. Our fact checker is Megan Cattel. 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.