The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A city that makes guns confronts its role in the Parkland mass shooting

Boston high school student Fred-Jerome Johnson, 18, leads a chant during a protest in front of Smith & Wesson's headquarters in Springfield, Mass. (Kevin Hagen/For The Washington Post)

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Hussein Abdi, 19, had never given much thought to the gunmaker down the street from his high school. He often passed the Smith & Wesson factory and its flashing marquee touting the company’s deep ties to the city, “Since 1852.” Nyasia Jordan, 18, knew it only as the place where her mom used to work. It’s one of the city’s largest employers. Others saw Smith & Wesson’s presence as another detail central to Springfield’s identity, the place where basketball was invented, Dr. Seuss was born and guns are made.

But this once-easy relationship between city and gunmaker has been rattled by the discovery that the firearm used to kill 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school last month was made here. The gun was a Smith & Wesson M&P15, a version of the controversial AR-15 military-style rifle. And that weapon had been used in mass shootings before, including in Aurora, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif.

In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, as companies like Delta Air Lines severed promotional ties with the National Rifle Association and Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling AR-15s, Smith & Wesson has found itself increasingly drawn into the public debate over gun violence. Now, for perhaps the first time in its long history, the gunmaker is also being attacked at home. Last week, protesters gathered outside the factory gates. Local students launched a letter-writing campaign directed at the company. They also plan to target the gunmaker this weekend during the city’s “March for Our Lives” rally.

Delta and United join a growing list of companies cutting ties with the National Rifle Association. (Video: The Washington Post)

The gun debate is different in Springfield, where talk of gun control collides with concerns about jobs and the role of a local company in a national tragedy. Student activists, energized by the Parkland survivors’ call for new gun laws, are struggling to balance their demands with the fact that guns support the local community and their parents’ jobs. Some older residents are starting to question their high regard for the gunmaker.

“They’ve always been viewed as a major employer, but they are also viewed now as making weapons used in mass shootings,” said the Rev. Douglas Fisher, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, based in Springfield, whose parishioners work at the gunmaker.

Not everyone supports the idea of taking on Smith & Wesson — or even wants to wade into the debate. Both the city’s Democratic mayor and its only trauma hospital, where most gunshot victims are treated, declined to discuss the role of Smith & Wesson in the gun-violence debate.

“This is a town where guns are interwoven into the economic story,” said Tara Parrish, director of the Pioneer Valley Project, a Springfield-based community advocacy group. “Gun manufacturing is just part of the fabric here.”

But now some are seeing an old industry in new ways. 

Abdi grew up in Springfield, worried about gun violence. A Kenyan refu­gee who has spent more than half his life here, Abdi lives in the city’s south end where, he said, shootings are common. But those deaths happen one by one. The intense focus on one mass shooting and a single gunmaker has provided an opening for his own long-simmering concern.

“I feel a special responsibility on this one,” Abdi said, standing just outside Smith & Wesson’s gates after school. “I feel like we’re the people who can do it. Because look, it’s right there.”

A pillar of the community

Springfield can seem like an unlikely home for the nation’s second-largest firearms manufacturer. Massachusetts has some of the nation’s most stringent gun laws, including a ban on most AR-15s. Smith & Wesson can’t even sell its M&P15 in the state.

But Springfield sits in the heart of “Gun Valley,” named for the massive armory that for almost two centuries produced most of the U.S. military’s small firearms, spurring other gunmakers to locate nearby. The armory’s closure in 1968 devastated the local economy.

Today, Smith & Wesson is among the city’s largest employers, behind MassMutual and the Big Y supermarket chain. And those jobs are needed. The unemployment rate in Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, stands at 6.7 percent, almost three points higher than in the state overall. The gunmaker also contributes to local charities and sponsors local events, including the “Garden of Peace” at the city’s annual holiday lights display — which some residents find a little ironic. 

About 1,400 people worked at Smith & Wesson as recently as three years ago, when the firearms industry was booming amid worries about gun policy under President Barack Obama. Firearms sales have plummeted since then.

Smith & Wesson has been hit hard. Today it has 25 percent fewer manufacturing workers than a year ago, according to an earnings conference call for analysts earlier this month with the gunmaker’s parent company, American Outdoor Brands. Its stock price is down 60 percent since President Trump was elected. Still, Smith & Wesson — which did not respond to multiple requests for comment — reported selling $773 million in guns last year.

Good will toward gunmaker

It was just one gun that changed the conversation in Springfield. Dean Rohan heard about it from his daughter.

They were eating dinner at home in the Springfield suburbs when Jamison, 16, said she wanted to join the local gun-control protests, in part because a Smith & Wesson gun had been used in the Parkland massacre. They were a family comfortable with guns. Dean Rohan used to be an avid hunter. Jamison had a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun when she was younger. 

“Smith & Wesson has been here my whole life,” Dean Rohan recalled. “I’ve never looked at them in a bad way.”

Students at thousands of schools across the country walked out of class March 14 to demand tighter gun control. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM BOURG/The Washington Post)

But listening to his daughter made him think. He was reluctant to blame the gunmaker. He blamed a lack of gun control. He saw no need for bump stocks or AR-15s. But he felt this kind of nuance is often lost in the all-or-nothing politics of the national gun debate.

Springfield — because it is a major gunmaker in a state with tight regulation — is home to seeming contradictions about guns. Carolyn Goldstein, a pediatrician in Springfield, said she hates gun violence but doesn’t blame the local gunmaker for causing it. 

“We don’t think about Smith & Wesson. It doesn’t come back to them,” Goldstein said.

She’s married to Mike Weisser, who for years ran a gun shop in a nearby suburb. Both favor a federal ban on AR-15s, at least.  

“The only way you’re going to end gun violence is to get rid of guns,” Weisser said.

Now, a group of students is working toward that. 

At a Dunkin’ Donuts in the suburb of East Longmeadow, four students plotted how to target Smith & Wesson. They had mailed a letter to the company the day before to “call on you to rise above these politicians and cease the sale of assault weapons to the public such as the AR-15 that was used in the Parkland shooting.”

“I think the gun companies should support us,” said Sarah Reyes, 16.

“Why would they?” asked Amelia Ryan, 18. “Smith & Wesson is all guns. What else are they going to do?”

In the days after the Parkland shooting, Ryan found herself searching for “How to survive a mass shooting” videos online. She devoured the social media clips posted by Parkland students while the shooting was still going on. She read the victims’ obituaries and was struck by the photo of one boy wearing a sweatshirt with the name of the college where he’d been accepted but would never attend.

Still, the teens were reluctant to go too hard after the company.

“They employ a lot of people,” Ryan said.

The students also discussed their plans for a local version of the national “March for Our Lives,” which they hoped to take past the front gates of Smith & Wesson. But they decided against it. They worried about attacking Smith & Wesson too directly. They had friends whose parents worked there. They didn’t want to see it shut down. They wanted it to stop selling AR-15s. 

“I kind of see Smith & Wesson like MassMutual,” said Trevaughn Smith, 17. “If they close down, that would be detrimental . . .”

“. . . to the economy at least,” Ryan finished.

But not everyone in the city felt as energized to protest gun violence as the students meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts. Anthony, a former Smith & Wesson employee who now works at a local gun shop, said he supported the students’ right to protest, even if he disagreed with their message. Anthony, who declined to give his last name, said he didn’t feel that the 17 deaths in Florida were the fault of Smith & Wesson.

“It’s not their fault that a lone individual did something evil,” he said, comparing it to a drunk driver killing someone. “Do we stop selling cars then?”

At New O’Brien’s Corner bar, a few blocks from Smith & Wesson, a nurse offered a defense of the gunmaker. 

“I love Smith & Wesson,” said Lauren Townley, enjoying a post-shift drink with two co-workers. She owns a Smith & Wesson handgun, an M&P Shield. 

Tammy Pouliot looked at her. Pouliot had been working at a hospital in Danbury, Conn., in 2012 when just a few miles away the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting resulted in the death of 20 children and six adults. The shooter used a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle. 

“Why should you or anyone else have access to an AR?” Pouliot asked.

Townley softened briefly, then said again she didn’t support new gun laws. “The problem is society,” she said.

“I still feel like there needs to be more limits,” said Pouloit.

'Something's got to be done'

Later that day, there was a small protest outside Smith & Wesson — the first, many believed, in at least a generation. Five city police cars blocked off the main gate, supplementing Smith & Wesson’s private security force.

“Oh my God,” said Hussein Abdi. “What do they think is going to happen? We’re going to rush in there?”

About 100 people stood on a small spit of land next to a four-lane road across from the gunmaker. The Pioneer Valley Project helped organize the protest. Some people had taken buses down from Boston and Holyoke. But most were locals. Episcopal leaders, dressed in purple scarves and cloaks, stood with other local clergy. Jamison Rohan had convinced her father to drive her down. 

Now she stood holding a sign reading, “#NEVER AGAIN,” while he stood off to the side, watching and taking photos. Two Springfield students were joined by their grandfather wearing a “Vietnam Vet” baseball cap.

“Something’s got to be done,” Tom Wyrostek, 68, said.

Abdi peeked at his cellphone to study the short speech he was about to give. He was senior class president at Springfield Central High, but he’d never done something like this before.

“Smith & Wesson needs to see us and know they can’t hide from us,” Abdi said into a microphone.

The protest ended with a letter delivered to the front gate demanding that Smith & Wesson executives meet with city residents to talk about gun violence. A week later, the gunmaker had not responded.