November 1989: That’s when the gun became a piece of evidence, following a series of well-publicized shoot- ings in Prince George’s County. At that point, the gun had been in existence for 13 1/2 years. It had been made, sold, traded and given away. It had been in Massachusetts and New York, Georgia and Maryland, and it had been fired hundreds of times at bottles, at cans, at tar- gets and, in its last weeks, at people.
“It was a nice gun,” says Daniel Payne. He was the gun’s first owner, who bought it for target shooting. “It was fairly accurate.”
“Look here,” says Eugene Grimes. He was the gun’s last victim, and he is running his fingers over a circular scar on the top of his left forearm. “It’s a little indention there you feel.” He turns his arm over and shows another scar, bigger, more of a bubble, this one from where the bullet came out. “It’s in the muscle,” he says, flexing. “See how it twitches?”
The gun — one of an estimated 200 million in the United States — is a Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic, one of the most popular guns around. It fired bullets about one-third of an inch wide, up to nine in a row, as fast as the trigger could be pulled. Because of the way the barrel was made, the bullets would always leave it spiraling clockwise, a rush of gray lead or copper emerging from the tip of a gun that, for its first years, sported a dark even tint. The tint was the result of bluing, a process intended to prevent corrosion. These days bluing is done by dipping a gun frame into a chemical solution, but when the gun was made in the mid-1970s, the process meant baking the frame in a mixture made from pulverized cow bones, which would come to Smith & Wesson by the truckload. “You talk about a room,” James Slachetka, a Smith & Wesson employee, says of the place where bluing used to occur. “It was filled with ovens and bones and smoke everywhere.”
This, then, is how the gun began: in the forges and ovens of the Smith & Wesson factory, a few miles from downtown Springfield, Mass. Of the dozens of handgun manufacturers in the United States, Smith & Wesson is the largest producer by far. The factory covers 600,000 square feet, which is three-quarters the size of a typical super-regional shopping mall. Between 1973 and 1989, a span in which 25 million handguns were produced domestically, 9.9 million were made there, an average of 1,500 a day.