The gun is useless now. It is tucked into a dirty plastic bag, which is stuffed inside a cardboard box, which is stored in the basement of the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro. It is in the courthouse’s evidence vault, which used to be a jail cell, locked away. The room is musty. The door is solid. There are no windows and only one weak overhead light. But even in the dimness, it’s obvious the gun has been through a lot.

Take the gun out of the bag, and you can see that its dark finish is nicked and worn down to bare steel in places, especially around the trigger and tip of the barrel. Bring it close, and the smell, which should be faintly of oil, is nothing but bitter metal. Bring it closer still, to eye level, and the view is of an empty barrel that hasn’t held a bullet in more than a year.

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.

Driving past the factory, or even pausing to look at it from the road, offers no hint of what goes on inside. There is a fence topped with barbed wire. There is a vast expanse of well-tended lawn, wide and deep and uninterrupted by bushes or trees. Finally, beyond the lawn are the buildings, low and flat and so far back that the sounds of making a gun can’t be heard by anyone not on the grounds.

Inside the buildings, though, it is different. Inside, the noise is constant. “The range goes all day long,” Slachetka says of the area of the factory that is set aside for gun testing, where as many as 200,000 rounds are fired in a week. “All day long you can hear it. Boom . . . boom . . . boom.” That’s the revolvers. “The automatics are ripping off a lot faster,” he says. “Boomboomboom.”

There are other noises as well: from the carbon-tipped drills that turn solid pieces of metal into barrels; the polishers and sanders; the forge. In the forging division, workers lay red-hot pieces of steel on a die that is positioned under a five-ton mechanical hammer. Every two seconds, the hammer drops, and when it does the floor shakes from the impact -- not only in the forging division, but in other parts of the factory as well. Slachetka, whose job is to file the rough edges off frames that will become revolvers, loves the sound, loves the sensation. “You love it because when the floor’s shaking, that’s work going,” he says.

And that is how gun workers feel about making guns, even guns that end up in evidence vaults. “I make a pretty decent dollar,” says Andy DelNegro, who has worked for Smith & Wesson for 11 years. “I live in one of the better towns in this area. I like Budweiser, and I like good steaks, and after a while what you want to do is maintain that.”

“You know, a gun gives life as much as it takes it away,” says Slachetka, who has been there for 16 years. “I mean, it gives me a life.”

He is sitting in his kitchen as he says this, a nice room in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The house has everything -- except a gun. Slachetka owns none and never has, even though Smith & Wesson allows its employees to buy as many as five a year at substantial discounts. “I’m one of the few who work there who’s anti-gun,” he says. “It’s contradictory, I know.” But it’s a living. And in Springfield, where the unemployment rate rose from 4 percent to 7 percent last year, Slachetka is so grateful for steady work that every morning he pushes aside the contradictions and is at the factory by 6:30. There are 1,500 workers at Smith & Wesson spread over two shifts, sometimes three. He has a cup of coffee. He punches a time clock. He makes his way across the old wooden floor to his work area, a bench he shares with two other workers. By 7, the noise begins. Sometimes they talk over it, sometimes they can’t. One time, when someone mentioned a movie poster he’d seen that featured Clint Eastwood and a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum, they wondered whether they had made the gun. Another time, after Slachetka had read an article about a local murder, he wondered whether they had made that gun. The others shrugged. “Well, it worked,” someone said, and that was the end of the conversation. They continued filing the frames, which come stacked in boxes brought by a forklift. On a good day, Slachetka will go through 16 boxes, 400 frames.

“Where are they going?” he says he thinks from time to time, amazed at how many there are. Every year, the number that Smith & Wesson produces is in the hundreds of thousands. Back in 1976, his first full year with the company, the number it reported making was 578,032. Of those, 57,479 were 9mm semiautomatics. Of those, one was serial number A301256.

That one went to Kentucky.

It went there in June, 1976 To Belknap Hardware, a distributor in downtown Louisville. Belknap is out of business now, but in its day it was one of the busiest hardware wholesalers in the United States with a catalogue of 55,000 items. Each year, its network of 300 salespeople sold thousands of guns to stores in 28 states. The Smith & Wesson cost Belknap about $75. It stayed on a warehouse shelf for several weeks, and then it was sold for $120 to a store called Brewerton Sports Shop, just north of Syracuse, N.Y.

It wasn’t chance, exactly, that got the gun to Brewerton; it was marketing. The selling of guns and ammunition in the United States, according to the International Trade Commission, is a $3.9 billion-a-year business. In any business that big, marketing is critical, but in firearms the glossy sophistication of it can be mind-boggling.

There are magazines, thick with ads and reviews, such as American Handgunner. There are catalogues too and legions of salespeople, and every so often there are trade shows, including one called the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT Show, which is the biggest of them all.

This year, the SHOT Show was in Dallas, one of the few cities in the country with a facility big enough to hold it. In its first year, it could have been in a hotel ballroom it was so small, but by its third year it had outgrown the Superdome, and at the Dallas Convention Center it featured 1,200 booths and six miles of aisles.

For four days, those aisles were clogged with 24,000 dealers and exhibitors. The exhibitors were the ones in suits; the dealers were often in leather vests or polyester jackets with the names of gun shops written across the back. David’s Gun Room was there. So was Pistol Pete’s. So was Uncle Sam’s Trading Post, of Edinboro, Pa., whose owner, Sam Austin, would spend $20,000 by the time the show came to an end. “There were some big-ass close-outs, some whopper deals,” Austin would explain of the purchases. “We had to wade in.”

The SHOT Show is essentially a hunting-and-outdoors show, and so the exhibits in Dallas included everything from clothes to duck decoys to “Ruck’n Buck, the ultimate territorial buck scent.” But the heart and soul of the show, as always, were the gun exhibits, where dealers lined up to pick the guns up, aim them toward the floor or rafters and pull the triggers. The guns weren’t loaded, of course, so there were no roars, only oily, metallic clicks.

At Taurus International’s display, the customers were tended to by salesmen in tuxedos. At Springfield Armory’s, deals were closed in either cubicles or an area on top of the cubicles that was reachable only by a spiral staircase. At Colt’s, the featured gun was the 9mm All American 2000, which was making its debut after two years of development. There had been focus groups to evaluate the design and surveys to select the name. Colt’s investment in the gun had been considerable, but at last it was being seen by dealers such as Leslie Carter, of San Antonio, who picked it up and curled her finger around the trigger, a finger whose nail was long, tapered and painted bright pink. She aimed the gun at the floor. She pulled the trigger. Click. “It’s very pretty,” she said and pulled the trigger again.

Over at the display for New Detonics Manufacturing Corp., another new gun -- called the O.S. -- was having its premiere as well. “It’s a last-chance defense gun for up-close,” said Chuck Lyford, the company’s president, explaining how the gun was named. “We were trying to figure out what to call it, and everybody in that situation says, ‘Oh, shit.’ “

“That is what people say,” said Pam Clapp, a consultant to the company. “You know how I know that? I used to be in aviation, and if you listen to tapes, that’s always what people say before they crash.”

Thus, the O.S. It is a .45-caliber semiautomatic, which Lyford said shoots a bullet superior to a 9mm because “a 9mm goes whistling through and makes a wound tunnel the size of a pencil and goes out the other side. If it doesn’t hit a bone or a vital organ, you’re not even going to know you’ve been hurt. Now this,” he continued, reaching into a pocket and taking out a bullet, “is a .45. It’s a sub-velocity bullet, and because it’s traveling slower it will have a better chance to perform. It will expand, mushroom and increase the size of the wound cavity giving us what we call greater quantity of injury.”

At the SHOT Show, or any gun show, the days and nights are filled with such talk: which gun is better, which trigger pulls smoother, which cartridge is more dependable. A lot of this spills from the aisles into the gun magazines, whose subscribers continue the debates in gun shops, where the owners are always wondering what new products to stock.

In 1976, the talk was of 9mm semiautomatics. And so it was that when a salesman from Belknap Hardware stopped in at Brewerton Sports Shop one day, Chuck Rogers, the store’s owner, ordered some Smith & Wessons.

The gun arrived there in July 1976 and was put on display in a glass counter by the cash register. Eight months later, in March 1977, it was sold. Now, 14 years later, Chuck Rogers’s son Steve, who has taken over the business, is trying to find the record of the transaction. “It’s here somewhere,” he says. He makes his way through the store, a big, well-stocked place, past the 173 rifles and shotguns for sale, past the fishing poles, past the sinks filled with live bait, and disappears into the back.

The store sits just off Interstate 81. It is 20 miles north of Syracuse, but it might as well be 100. Syracuse is a city, while Brewerton is some stores and houses in the midst of woods and farms. The customers who want guns are mostly hunters, and the guns they buy are mostly rifles and shotguns. A good number of handguns are sold too -- several hundred a year -- but the assumption, says Steve Rogers, after emerging from the back empty-handed, is that they’ll be used for target shooting or hunting. “You see a lot of guys hunting your small game with handguns,” he says. “Your squirrels. Your woodchucks.”

“It’s more of a challenge,” says John Colasanti, one of Rogers’s employees. “With a rifle, you can be a long way off, but with a handgun you have to get up close. You’re going to have to do things with a handgun that you won’t have to worry about with a long gun. With a shotgun, you can hit a deer in the ass and it’ll take care of it. With a handgun, you’ve got to have more skill. Maybe you’re up in a tree stand. You’ve sprayed some deer scent, and here it comes, closer. You’ve got to wait until it’s 20 yards at the farthest, otherwise it’s too chancy. Sometimes it comes right under you, and it doesn’t even know you’re there, and you’ve got that handgun braced and ready to go.”

Colasanti opens the back of the case where the handguns are stored and takes out a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum, the Clint Eastwood gun. It is stainless steel and has a barrel 8 3/8 inches long. “Look at this gun. What else are you going to use it for?” he says.

“That’s basically used for hunting,” says Rogers, taking the gun. “That’s about the only purpose that gun is made for, really.”

Rogers puts the gun away and heads through the store to the back, where he has a small office. There, on his desk, is a stack of records of handgun transactions from March 1977. It turns out that two handguns were sold on March 3, both Smith & Wesson 9mms. He looks at the form for the gun with serial number A301256. The buyer was named Daniel Payne. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, continuing to look at the form. “I sold him that gun. That’s my writing on the permit.”

He keeps reading. “He was a big guy -- 71 inches, 290 pounds.”

He tries to picture Daniel Payne but can’t. He shrugs.

“It’s been 14 years.”

Daniel Payne, on the other hand, can remember everything about Brewerton Sports Shop. He remembers stopping in there for bait whenever he headed north out of Syracuse to go fishing. He remembers that the bait was toward the back of the store and the cash register was toward the left, on top of the counter that held the handguns. One day, he remembers, he glanced at the guns and saw the Smith & Wesson 9mm, which he’d been reading about in the gun magazines. The price was around $160, including a carrying case. He asked to see it and remembers how it felt in his hand. He is a large man with short, stubby fingers, which makes it difficult for him to grip certain guns. But the 9mm felt good, and on the spot he bought it.

He wasn’t able to take it with him immediately because of New York’s pistol permit requirements. In New York, anyone buying a handgun for the first time has to supply fingerprints, photographs and references, and the wait for a background check to be completed can take as long as six months. Payne didn’t have to wait that long because he’d bought guns before, but he did have to amend his initial application, and several weeks went by before the gun was his. He took it out of the box, loaded eight cartridges into the magazine, inserted the magazine into the gun and began carrying the gun wherever he went. He usually tucked it into his back pocket, until one night, at the end of a date, as he kissed a girl goodnight, her hands began to wander. Across his back. Down. Lower. Until they came to an abrupt stop. The kiss continued, Payne remembers, “but you could feel the body tense up.” After that, he began keeping the gun in his house, taking it with him only on days when he was headed to a gun range or the woods.

Payne, who is 38, lives in Atlanta now, not far from Grady Memorial Hospital, where he works as a nurse. He owns several guns and cares for them scrupulously. He understands how they work from taking them apart for cleaning, and he understands what they’re capable of doing from the patients he has treated at the hospital. These days he takes care of premature babies, but he used to work in intensive care, where gunshot wounds were common.

“Hands, heads, abdomens, feet, legs, backs,” he says, recalling the locations of some of the wounds he has treated. “Shots in the abdomen with shotguns, in the back with .357s. Police shootings. Street shootings.” Over the years, he says, he saw so many wounds that he was able to tell what type of gun had been used simply by looking at the hole.

“A lot of them were self-inflicted,” he continues. One patient, a man who was drunk, missed several times before successfully shooting himself through the chin, something the police determined by counting the bullet holes in his ceiling. “One was a bad accident -- a guy got shot in the chest with a .50-caliber machine gun.” That was a huge wound, doubly painful to the victim because the shooting, which occurred on a military base, involved a bullet that had been coated with phosphorous.

“I’ve been in the business 19 years,” Payne says of all this, “so I know what guns can do.”

But he also knows the joys of firing a gun, he goes on, which is why he bought the Smith & Wesson.

It was the third handgun he had ever bought. The first was a Llama .380 semi-automatic, which he kept in his glove compartment until it was stolen. “God only knows what happened to that one,” he says.

The next was an Astra .357 revolver with a six-inch barrel that he used to shoot deer, rabbits and, every once in a while for practice, full cans of soda. “It’s very dramatic,” he says of the bullet’s impact on the can. “The can explodes, basically.”

Then came the Smith & Wesson, which he would take to a gun range whenever he had time. “I love range shooting,” he says. “I will sit there for hours. I’ll sit there and poke holes in paper at 200 yards, holes so small I can’t even see them from where I’m sitting. When you can do that, shoot a five-shot group into a hole that you can cover with a dime, that’s a satisfying sensation. You know you’ve done everything right. You know you’ve gotten your body just right, your breathing, your focus, your concentration, the position of your head. You know you’ve put all the parts together. It’s a satisfying thing.”

And that’s the feeling he got with the Smith & Wesson, at least initially. Over time, though, he liked the gun less and less. He couldn’t get entirely comfortable with the way the trigger pulled. “There was a lot of dead space. The trigger was moving, and nothing was engaging. It was not smooth or slippery.”

And there was the matter of the way the casings were ejected. In a revolver, the casings stay in the cylinder, but in a semiautomatic they are ejected out of and away from the gun as part of the firing process. Like many semiautomatics, the Smith & Wesson sent casings up and to the right. Normally, this isn’t a problem, but because Payne shoots left-handed, the casings sometimes would come down on his head. “You don’t see it coming,” he says, “and all of a sudden, thunk. It smacks you on the head. Bad for concentration, to say the least.”

His solution was to start wearing a cap when he shot, but after a while he stopped using the gun almost entirely and decided to trade it for another. At that point, he’d had the gun nearly 10 years. He thought back to some of the other guns he had shot and remembered a time in Syracuse when he had tried a revolver made by Dan Wesson, which was a small company started by a relative of one of Smith & Wesson’s founders. The revolver, as he remembered it, was a wonderful gun, solid and precise.

He decided he wanted a Dan Wesson.

Lee Hepler had one. It was a Dan Wesson .357 with an eight-inch barrel, and he had it because it was his stepfather’s dying wish.

“He was lying in bed,” Hepler recalls. “He could barely breathe. He kept saying something, and I had to ask him what he was trying to say, and he was getting frustrated, he was so weak, and finally it dawned on me what he was saying. He wanted me to have the pistol.”

Like Daniel Payne, Lee Hepler lives in Georgia. He is a 40-year-old respiratory therapist who lives just north of Atlanta, but he grew up in Prince George’s County, and that’s where he came to be with his stepfather as he died. The gun he left with was far from his first. His whole life, in fact, had been punctuated by guns of different sorts, starting when he was 6 and his father taught him to shoot.

“We were in a gravel pit in Morningside. God, I remember squeezing the trigger. To my dad, it was a Crosman pellet rifle, but to me it was an atomic weapon.”

At 14, he was in the gravel pit with his twin brother, Paul, shooting at lizards and birds: “I remember a police car pulled up, and he got out and started waving his hands, and the first thing I thought was, ‘I’m shooting starlings! I better take off!’ My brother and I ran into some woods, and in the distance I saw the police car coming, and I thought, ‘My God, what do they think I did?’ I ducked behind a barbecue pit, and he saw me. ‘Come on out.’ I threw out the gun, and then I followed, and he said, ‘You shouldn’t run like that. A liquor store was just robbed, and all we saw was you in the distance with a rifle, and you could have been shot.’ “

At 16, his stepfather gave him his first shotgun, a 12-gauge: “I squeezed the trigger, and this awful roar went off, and I ended up with a bruise over my whole shoulder and chest. I pretended to really like it, but it scared me to death.”

At 18, he took the 12-gauge on a hunting trip and fired it at a dove: “There was nothing left of him. There was nothing to take home.”

One day, years after that, Hepler’s stepfather was stopped at a traffic light when a drunken man reached in through the open window and grabbed him by the shirt. He wasn’t hurt, but it scared him enough to make him buy the Dan Wesson. Two years later, in 1985, he suffered a heart attack and, in his last hours, gave away as keepsakes some of his most prized possessions. Paul got a canoe, Lee the gun.

He took the Dan Wesson back to Georgia, fired it a few times and decided it would be a good thing to take on hiking trips in case he came up against a bear or wild pig. The gun barrel, though, made the gun too long to fit easily into a backpack. One day, Hepler mentioned this to a friend, and the friend said he knew of someone, a nurse at Grady Memorial, who wanted a Dan Wesson revolver and had a 9mm semiautomatic he was willing to trade.

The trade took all of 10 minutes. No money was exchanged, just guns and a handshake, and with that the Smith & Wesson 9mm belonged to Hepler.

That was in early 1986. Soon, Hepler took the Smith & Wesson into the woods and fired it at some cans and bottles. One can, when he hit it, went skittering along the ground, and he followed it, firing, watching it bounce and firing again. “I was happy with the gun,” Hepler recalls of that day. “I had some regret about losing the revolver my stepfather gave me, but I liked the gun.”

But over time, just as had happened to Payne, Hepler grew disenchanted. He too couldn’t get used to the trigger. Also, the gun began feeling jiggly. And there was so much to think about before it could be fired. Was the safety off? Was the round in the chamber? Eventually, all of his questions came down to one: why he wanted the gun at all.

“It gives you a certain degree of power that people who don’t have pistols don’t have, but at the same time it makes you look at yourself and wonder, ‘Why do I want this thing?’ “ he explains. “The reality of the situation was I didn’t really need an automatic, didn’t really like an automatic and regretted giving up the pistol my father had left me.”

He put the gun away, storing it on the top shelf of a closet. Then, on a trip home to Maryland to see his family, he decided to bring the gun along and give it to someone who cared more deeply about guns than he did, his half-brother John.

“I got rid of the pistol,” Hepler says, “and thought I’d never hear about it again.”

“So he brought it up to me,” John Chanslor says. “It was really worn. Worn bad. It looked kind of ratty. The parts inside were well-used, really shaky. I took it out to the range, twice, but could not hold a grouping with it -- that’s how close the bullet holes are on the target -- so I just stuck it on a shelf, oiled it, kept the maintenance up. It just basically sat around.”

Chanslor has a difficult time discussing this. If guns punctuated his older brother Lee’s life, they have defined his, and none more than the Smith & Wesson. He is 25 and lives in Charles County with his mother, Virginia Chanslor, in a house that has the suggestion of guns throughout. There are guns in his bedroom, guns in the den, books about guns on the shelves. “I can’t put it into words,” he says of his fascination. “The precision. The work that goes into it. Especially the antique ones.” He has several antiques hanging above the fireplace, including a reproduction of an 1847 Colt Walker.

“Is that the one you fired for New Year’s?” his mother asks him one night.

“No,” he says. “That was the flintlock.”

“I nearly jumped out of my chair,” she says, remembering the noise.

“Three, two, one, boom!” Chanslor remembers. “Happy New Year.”

The house is way out, in a place where there aren’t many neighbors to disturb. Chanslor has lived there since he was 11, after his parents decided that Prince George’s County was becoming too crowded and dangerous. There was the time when John was shot at by a boy with a BB gun. There was another time when his mother was in her bedroom, dressing, and a bullet came smashing through the window. To Virginia Chanslor and her husband, the isolation of Charles County seemed preferable, but to John it meant spending a good deal of time by himself. He began reading a lot, especially about the Civil War and the history of firearms. What began as a mild interest eventually became an occupation: After high school, he went to work in Accokeek, Md., at Beretta USA Corp., where the product happens to be 9mm semiautomatics.

Like Smith & Wesson, the Beretta factory is a huge place. In 1989, it produced almost 100,000 guns, and Chanslor worked on most of them. His job is to fine-tune the barrels: “One of the two critical positions on the line,” he says with pride. He finishes several hundred barrels a day. He wears safety glasses, earplugs and a smock. He isn’t one to talk much while he works, but one day a new employee named James Edmonds began working near him on the line, and soon, to Chanslor’s surprise, they became friends.

The surprise is because of Chanslor’s difficulty in making friends, which he explains by standing up. “Look,” he says as an invitation to look him over and take in his size. He is 6-2 and well over 200 pounds with a broad, deep chest. “It’s intimidating. It’s very hard to break the ice and get to know people. Some- body my size, you walk into a room and people either stray away or want to start something. And when I find some- body who accepts me for what I am and wants to be friends with me, I hold onto that.”

He and Edmonds began driving together to work. Sometimes they went out to bars. A few times, Edmonds came to Chanslor’s house, and Chanslor showed off his gun collection. And then Edmonds left his job, just disappeared, another friend vanished, until one night a few months later, in October 1989, when he showed up unexpectedly at Chanslor’s front door, asking to borrow a gun.

“He said he was having family problems, that people were getting harassed and beaten up,” Chanslor says. He invited Edmonds in. “I guess maybe what I was thinking was it’s a friend of mine, and he felt his family was in danger, and that I should try to help my friend.”

Chanslor thought of the guns he had. The antiques. The reproductions. The AK assault-type rifle. The 12-gauge shotgun that he got for hunting. The .45 ACP pistol that he got for target shooting. The other .45 ACP. The .38 he got for his mother. The 9mm sitting on a shelf.

And so the Smith & Wesson went from John Chanslor to James Edmonds.

The next time Chanslor saw the gun was when he was in court, on the witness stand, but that was much later. First came the day when Virginia Chanslor, listening to the radio, heard that someone named James Edmonds Jr. had been arrested for murder. Several weeks had gone by since John’s friend had come to ask for a gun, and she couldn’t remember his last name.

“Edmonds,” John told her.

“Oh my God.”

On TV they saw Edmonds being led from his apartment in handcuffs.

Then the police called, asking about a gun that had been found in Edmonds’s car.

“After that is when things turned into a blur,” Chanslor says. “For all intents and purposes, I had a nervous breakdown.”

For 12 1/2 years, the gun had been aimed harmlessly at pieces of paper, empty bottles, old cans. It had turned targets into lace and glass into slivers. Now, the gun would be aimed at people. Five of them would be shot. Two would die.

The first target, say police, was Donald Matthews, who was at the night deposit box at a bank in Forestville, Md. It was October 11, 1989, a Wednesday, a day or so after James Edmonds had gone to John Chanslor’s. Edmonds, this night, was out with four friends -- Damon Bowie, Chris Bowie, Derrell Thomas and Shaun Harris. Someone pressed a gun to Matthews’s head, money was taken, the whole episode was over in a few seconds. Matthews, frightened but unhurt, lost $80.20, which, according to Chris Bowie’s testimony, bought food and gas and left everyone wanting more money.

The next target is thought to have been a West Coast Video store in Alexandria. Now it was about 10:30 p.m. The night clerk was leaving the store when, according to police, Edmonds and Damon Bowie jumped her, pressed a gun to her head, forced her back inside the store, roughed her up, made her open the store safe, took the little bit of money that was in there, locked her in the bathroom and left.

The third target was Leon Gilliam, the night manager of a Hardee’s not far from Andrews Air Force Base. Now it was nearing midnight. Hardee’s was closed. Gilliam was walking toward his car carrying a briefcase in one hand and a paper bag in the other, and Edmonds, according to testimony, was walking toward him, sure that the paper bag was filled with money.

Edmonds was flanked by Damon Bowie and Derrell Thomas. Chris Bowie and Shaun Harris waited nearby in a car. Gilliam, looking around, realized with a quickening heart that three people were coming at him. One held a gun and pushed it toward his face. Another grabbed for the paper bag. Without a fight, he let go, and the three ran off, back to the car, where they reached into the bag and discovered that they hadn’t stolen a bag of money after all. They had stolen a bag of cookies.

“We laughed,” Edmonds told police later, “and drove off. We drove past Stoney’s. Then Damon said Stoney’s is a good place to rob.”

Stoney’s is Stoney’s restaurant and Lounge. On weeknights, it closes around 11:30. It was now midnight, perhaps a little after. Six people were inside behind locked doors. One was Allan Stone, the restaurant’s owner. One was Robert McDaniel, an off-duty police detective who was friends with Stone. The other four were employees, including Arnold Batson, who was sweeping up when there was a noise at the front door. “I’ll get it,” he called out. He disappeared through a set of swinging doors that separates the lounge from the entranceway, and when he came back, there were two people with him. One was Edmonds. The other was Damon Bowie, who had his arm wrapped around Batson’s head and the Smith & Wesson pressed against his temple. “Get back! Get the money!” Bowie screamed, according to trial testimony. “Get the money, or I’ll kill him!”

“Give him the money,” Batson said.

“I said to him, ‘We’ll get you money,’ “ Stone testified. “ ‘We’ll get you the money’ is exactly what I said, and I moved toward the end of the bar.

“Then I heard a gunshot go off.”

It was the Smith & Wesson, being fired for the first time at a person. In the initial commotion, McDaniel, the detective, had managed to extract a small revolver he carried in an ankle holster. That gun was in his hand. He was trying his best to keep it hidden, but suddenly Bowie swung the 9mm away from Batson’s head, just long enough to fire once, and the bullet went into McDaniel’s face between his lip and nose. He didn’t realize he had been shot, not then, even when his head inexplicably snapped back. He was busy trying to say that everyone should stay calm, everyone should cooperate, but there was this bang, and then his words sounded a little mushy, and Bowie was yelling, “Get on the floor,” and he was trying to say, “I am,” and then he was on the floor, on his stomach, trying to conceal his gun when he tasted blood and realized what the bang had been.

“And my head,” he testified of what he felt next. “There was a lot of vibration and ringing, sounds like you were inside a drum.”

The next bullet went into Stone, into his right arm, which was curled around his head.

“I knew I had been shot. Because of the burning sensation,” Stone would testify. “I just laid there like I had been killed, just laid there with my eyes closed completely . . . just laid there listening. I could hear the compressors running and the parlor fans. There’s parlor fans in the lounge area. I could hear the parlor fans, and there’s a chain on one of them that just taps at the light ever so lightly, and I could hear that, and it was very, very quiet. I was going to get up because of not hearing any sounds whatsoever, and I started to press on the floor, and then I thought that, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t hear the swinging doors.’

“I thought, ‘My God, they’re still here.’

“And then I heard a pop, pop.”

Those were the gunshots into Arnold Batson and Kevin Shelley.

Shelley, 28, the assistant manager, was on his stomach. The gun was only a few inches from him when it was fired. The bullet went into his head behind his left ear and came to a stop under his right eye. He died instantly, with both eyes open. “I imagine what he must have looked like, lying on the floor, his head laying flat, his hands behind him,” Cheryl Shelley says of how she continues to envision her husband’s moment of death. “I see that a lot . . . I don’t see the gun. I just see the shot in his head.”

Batson, 27, was on his back. He was shot twice. One bullet went through his hand. The other was fired into his head. He too was shot behind the left ear but didn’t die as quickly.

“Arnold was laying on his back,” Stone testified, “and he was choking.” On the floor, his eyes still closed, Stone heard this. He heard a sneaker squeaking on the floor. He felt a nudge as someone ran over him. He heard the swinging doors. He heard the front doors. He lay there for a moment more, absolutely terrified, and then he opened his eyes and saw the misery of what he had been hearing. Another employee who’d been in a back room during the shooting was already on the phone to the police. “We need help,” Stone yelled into the phone and went to Batson. “I turned him over,” he testified, “and I took his head, and I turned it to the side and tried to clear his mouth so he could breathe, and at that time Officer McDaniel started speaking to me. He said, ‘Allan . . . Get my gun . . . It’s under my back.’

“I said, ‘No, that’s fine, let’s leave it there.’

“He said, ‘Get my gun.’

“I said, ‘Help is on the way. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.’

“He said something to the effect, ‘Don’t tell me I’m going to be fine. My brains have just been blown out.’

“I said, ‘No, you’re fine, you’re going to be fine,’ and then I heard the rescue squads outside.”

Several weeks later, after the autopsies and funerals, after surgery on McDaniel and the beginning of his long recuperation, the gun was used again.

This time the victim was Eugene Grimes, 54, who was closing up his small grocery store in the farthest reaches of Prince George’s County. Just after 7 o’clock, he came out the front door and saw a man standing by the pay phone. This, police say, was Derrell Thomas, who had been given the 9mm by James Edmonds to rob the store. “I asked him what he was doing,” Grimes recalls. “He said, ‘Waiting for a ride.’ I took him at his word.”

Two other times in his life, guns had had an impact on Eugene Grimes. The first time, he was 18. He was working in his father’s store along with a boy who was deaf and mute and would help out from time to time doing whatever he could, and, for reasons no one would ever be able to find out, he reached under the counter, picked up a gun and shot Grimes through the back of the neck. The bullet went in and out, damaging nothing other than muscle and skin, but to this day the scars remain, two dull little circles of pink. The second time came in 1971, when his father was leaving the store one night and was shot in the stomach and side in a robbery. Grimes found out about it when his father showed up at his door, bleeding and asking for help. The wounds were serious, but recovery was complete, and, over time, Grimes no longer thought about it whenever he walked out of the store.

This night, in fact, he was thinking about beef stew. His wife had phoned to say she’d made some, and as he walked out the door he was carrying three pieces of white bread for the gravy. He looked at the man by the phone. He had no way of knowing that a few minutes before, as the man drove to the store, he had pointed a gun out of the window of the car he was in and fired wildly at a truck, screaming, ‘Shoot him.’ Grimes looked at the man, not even knowing he had a gun. But then he looked again, and the man made a sudden move, and he dropped the bread and made a dive for the door. When he hit it, it opened enough for him to roll through, but not before he felt a stinging, much like he felt when he was 18, as a bullet passed through his arm. He lay on the floor waiting for the door to burst open. He discovered he had two holes in his arm, one on top, one on the bottom. He began making his way up the aisle, past cereals, past noodles, past the meat counter, into his office. He locked the door and called for help. He wrapped a shirt around his arm, watched as the shirt turned red and found himself wishing he had a gun in case the shooter came in to hunt him down.

No one did come in, though. Whoever shot him ran off, taking the white bread along. And that, as far as police can tell, was the last time the gun was used.

There were arrests. And trials. The cases in which no one was killed have yet to be resolved, but in the Stoney’s case Damon Bowie was sentenced to death; Chris Bowie got life; Derrell Thomas got life; James Edmonds got 130 years; and Shaun Harris pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Harris, who cooperated with police, was one of the prosecution’s mostdamaging witnesses. However, it was Robert McDaniel’s testimony that was the most affecting.

“The bullet went around inside of my head and lodged in behind my ear,” he said to the jury in a voice that comes out a little slower and more measured than it once did. “{It} broke my jaw and removed all of my middle ear and inner ear, I guess, and has caused me permanent loss of hearing. It’s affected my balance, paralyzed my face . . . I still have gunpowder embedded in my eyeball . . .”

“It wasn’t done by my hand,” James Edmonds said at his sentencing, pleading for leniency. “I never took anyone’s life.”

“He’s as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger,” argued Deborah Johnston, the prosecutor. “If James Westly Edmonds hadn’t given that loaded 9 millimeter to Mr. Bowie . . . Mr. Batson and Mr. Shelley would still be alive today.”

But, of course, the path that brought the gun to Bowie was far more complicated than that.

The gun, now, is a gun in form and memory only. After firing hundreds of rounds, it won’t be fired again. It will be stored away as a piece of evidence for a few years more, until all of the various appeals have run their course, and then it will be turned over to the Prince George’s County Police Department for final disposal. At that point, there will be a couple of options, says Lt. William Norris, the police department’s property custodian.

“If we know the owner, and the owner was in no way involved, it could go back to him,” Norris says. “John Chanslor could apply to have the weapon returned.”

“I don’t want it,” Chanslor says when asked if he would apply. “I’ll take a sledgehammer to it. I’ll cut it in half. I don’t want it back.”

“Then we’ll most likely melt it down,” Norris says.

That will happen at Bethlehem Steel near Baltimore, where thousands of guns used illegally in the Washington-Baltimore area -- pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns -- are disposed of each year. “It’s melted down and poured in a big vat,” Norris says of what will happen to the gun at Bethlehem Steel. “It could become a railroad track, whatever.”

“Or a steel plate used in a roadway,” says Bethlehem Steel spokesman Ted Baldwin. “Or a beam for a building, or for a bridge, or ship. Or sheet steel for an appliance. Or a 55-gallon-drum, or a school locker . . .”

In the meantime, the gun will be in the custody of Midge Kett, an assistant supervisor of the Prince George’s County Circuit Court. She is the one with the key to the courthouse’s vault. One after- noon, she goes to the vault, swings the door open, finds a box, removes a bag. “You can take it out if you want,” she says.

There are blemishes. And rust. In the hand, the gun feels surprisingly heavy. But comfortable too. The grip is in good shape. The sights are intact. The fit into the palm is snug, allowing the finger to go easily around the trigger, a trigger that, in spite of its scars, isn’t at all difficult to pull.