For nearly a decade, Alain Stephens has been chewing on a question: What makes the gun industry tick?
That question is at the heart of The Gun Machine, a limited-run podcast from WBUR and The Trace. In the first episode, Stephens — an investigative reporter for The Trace and the host of the podcast — provides an answer that serves as a thesis for the rest of the season. “It’s us,” he says. “And by ‘us,’ I mean the U.S. government.”
Stephens spent months researching the 250-year relationship between the federal government and the firearms industry, drawing on his years of experience reporting on violence, to tell the story of how America was built on the gun. I spoke with Stephens about the genesis of his podcast, the contemporary evolution of gun culture, and his unique insight into the role of guns in American life. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sunny Sone: How did the concept for The Gun Machine come into being?
Alain Stephens: WBUR producer Grace Tatter approached me in the fall of 2022 with the idea of exploring the historical relationship between the gun industry and the government. We knew we wanted to tell the untold chronicle of the gun, but we also wanted to make sure that we grounded it in the why — which is that we see 133 gun deaths a day, now, in the present. And that’s not an anomaly, it’s part of that chronicle.
As you mention in Episode 1, you’ve spent a lot of your life around guns. How did that history inform your approach to the podcast, a necessarily first-person body of work?
For many people, guns are a topic a thousand miles away. However, coming from my background, firearms were a way of life, and even work. And that makes it easier to see the ubiquity the gun has in American culture, history, politics, and violence.
In recent years, it appears that there’s been an increase in interest in gun ownership from people you wouldn’t necessarily think of as the main demographic — women, gay and trans people, and people whose politics broadly lean left, for example. Why do you think that is?
I always say that firearms are symbols, and that is why we fight so viciously over them. For many mainstream Americans, they are seen as symbols of self-determination, autonomy, and distrust of authority. But one of the things I’ve found most fascinating as of late is how minority groups are seizing onto the firearm for these very same reasons. In the wake of violent rhetoric and action, we’ve seen an outcropping of Black, brown, and LBGTQ+ organizations gravitate to the gun — often fueled by a much more direct rationale.
Culturally, the gun space is moving toward a citizen-protector movement. This is less about hunting, or heritage, or even merely self-defense — it’s more identity-centered, more about defending one’s broader community from violence. So we’ve seen a huge push in training, equipment, and mantra-focused everyday carry.
In the wake of things like COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd, we began to see cracks in our state systems. And as a reaction, many Americans turned to the gun.
What didn’t make it into the podcast that you wish had?
Of course there are interviews, stories, and bits of information that end up not making it to air. But to be honest, we really are laying the best of it out there. This is really a raw reporter’s notebook dump in many ways. It’s also an opportunity to understand a bit of how a gun reporter has looked at this world — every day, 24/7 — for close to a decade.
From Our Team
A roundup of stories from The Trace this week.
In 1999, more than 30 cities came together to hold major gun companies accountable. They faced the NRA at the pinnacle of its power.
Weapons-maker Byrna is touting “less lethal” guns for self-defense. Can the company find a market in a country dominated by gun lovers and gun haters?
An activist has sued the agency for information about U.S. guns smuggled to Mexico and Central America, data that researchers say would provide insights into cross-border firearms trafficking.
What to Know This Week
In 1983, Mark Rosenberg started a branch of the CDC dedicated to studying violence, modeling his work on existing research into motor vehicle wrecks. The studies on car crashes eventually spurred innovations and policy changes that made driving safer. But Rosenberg’s work, which faced fierce opposition from the gun lobby, resulted in essentially one thing: his firing from the CDC in 1999. [The Texas Tribune]
Nearly 700 days after four students were killed in the deadly shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, independent investigators released a sweeping report concluding that the attack could have been prevented if the district had appropriately carried out threat assessment intervention. The report faulted top school officials for “failure and responsibility by omission.” [ProPublica/Detroit Free Press]
A new study from researchers at Princeton University found that stricter state-level gun regulations reduced gun deaths by about 10 percent. The study analyzed data from 1991 to 2016. [The New York Times]
Three-quarters of veterans who take their own lives die by gunshot, yet for decades, discussions about suicide prevention skirted questions about firearms. Amid a steady rise in gun suicides over the past few years, researchers and the Department of Veterans Affairs have begun to seriously evaluate the role of guns in the veteran suicide epidemic — and how to protect veterans on their darkest days. [Associated Press]
The Commerce Department is temporarily halting most exports of American-made civilian firearms and conducting a review to assess the “risk of firearms being diverted to entities or activities that promote regional instability, violate human rights, or fuel criminal activities.” [Bloomberg Politics/Reuters]
Activists in Kentucky haven’t given up on finding justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by police in Louisville three years ago. For many, the gubernatorial race between incumbent Andy Beshear, a Democrat in an otherwise GOP-dominant state, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who declined to prosecute the officers who killed Taylor, is an inflection point in their struggle. [The 19th]
Last year, the National Rifle Association saw its worst fundraising totals in more than a decade, according to a financial audit, largely due to plummeting membership. Income from members has been halved in just six years, while the gun group continues to spend millions on protracted legal battles. [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington]
California Governor Gavin Newsom has made little visible progress on his proposal to enshrine gun safety laws in the U.S. Constitution, apart from advocating for it on social media and gaining approval from his state’s Legislature. He has recruited no other state governments in his effort to call a constitutional convention. [Politico]
Days after the deadliest mass shooting in Maine’s history, the NRA promoted a 2019 video clip of new U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, criticizing gun safety measures like universal background checks. Separately, in a comment about the massacre in Maine, Johnson dismissed calls for firearm safety laws, saying: “The problem is the human heart. It’s not guns.” [HuffPost/The New Republic]
As Macon, Georgia, navigates record high homicide rates in recent years, one father who lost his daughter to gun violence 10 years ago — and his grandson this Saturday — is pleading for change. [WMAZ]
In 2020, police in Denver, seeking to respond to an uptick in violence, decided to attempt to solve every nonfatal shooting. The team dedicated to the effort has since solved hundreds of cases — and Denver’s strategy has caught the attention of cities across the country. [The Marshall Project and USA TODAY]
London Price, 26, would never give you a dull moment. She was vivacious and goofy, friends and loved ones wrote on Facebook, the kind of person who could make you laugh under the fluorescent lights of Walmart’s vitamin aisle, or make you crack up in the middle of a church service. Price was shot and killed last week at her home in Miami-Dade County, reportedly by her former boyfriend; she was at least the fifth Black trans person to be violently killed in October 2023. Price had a desire to help people — she would “give you the shirt off her back,” her aunt said. “To know you was to love you,” one friend wrote in a remembrance. “You were so beautiful inside and out.”
Freedom Under Fire: When Guns Outnumber People, Which American Liberties Prevail?: “American identity is deeply grounded in the belief that everyone, no matter who they are, is entitled to certain rights and liberties. But what happens when one of those freedoms – a nearly unfettered right to own guns – upends the calculus that safeguards others? … The tension between those beliefs is rising. How can the freedoms Americans cherish be protected when the threat of mass shootings, neighborhood violence and self-harm casts such a long shadow?” [Associated Press]
“I really think we should talk more to our youth. We have to find a way to get to them now, or there’s going to be nothing when we leave.”
— Vashunte Settles, whose child De’Evan McFall was shot and killed by a teenage neighbor in January, on gun violence among young people, to The Texas Tribune