SPRINGFIELD — Stephan Maignan goes to work and literally stares into the barrel of a gun — 3,500 of them on any given shift — at the Smith & Wesson plant.
“I go to work, do my job, and take off when it’s that time,” said the 21-year-old who has worked at the firearm manufacturer for less than six months. “I don’t really think about it too much, about who buys the guns.”
Across the country, the debate over access to firearms has escalated this summer, spurred by an Orlando night club shooting that killed 49 people in June. In the days that followed, Democrats in Washington, D.C., staged a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor to demand a vote on gun control.
But there were no protest signs or picket lines in Springfield, home to one of the nation’s largest gun makers. Smith & Wesson has been based in Western Massachusetts for more than a century and is one of the region’s largest employers. And to many, including US Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, who participated in that demonstration on the House floor, it is the hometown company.
“My own position has always been: Be helpful in that every police officer or patrolman in America ought to use a Smith & Wesson, and I think the American military ought to use a Smith & Wesson,” Neal said in an interview. “At the same time, there will be disagreements as it relates to guns.”
Western Massachusetts’ history with gun manufacturing goes back to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington selected Springfield as the site of the country’s first armory. Since then, the industry has grown with a number of arms manufacturers, including Savage Arms in Westfield, and supporting companies calling the area home.
“It is has been part of the economics of Western Mass., literally, for centuries,” said Rick Sullivan, head of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. “It is an important industry.”
Maignan said he was doing heating and air conditioning work before he started at Smith & Wesson, attracted to the company by high wages and good benefits. “You hear about Smith & Wesson. It’s a good place to work,” he said, before his friend interrupted, “I’m trying to get in there now.”
“It’s a good job,” co-worker Marc Holland called out from across the bar at the neighborhood watering hole early one morning last month.
Holland, 54, retired after 25 years at a paper mill and was looking for a way to stay busy. Six years ago, a friend at Smith & Wesson told him about an opening. Now, he works the machines that make triggers among other things.
“I can do like 3,600 triggers in a shift, over 10,000 in a week,” he said.
The company’s impact extends beyond the gates of its Roosevelt Avenue headquarters, donating to local charities, restoring the Roosevelt Avenue Veteran’s Memorial flagpole, and helping businesses in the manufacturing supply chain. Smith & Wesson declined to comment for this article.
Dick and Marcia Fuller have operated businesses less than a mile from Smith & Wesson since the 1960s. Sitting in their bookstore, where new and used volumes overflow the shelves, the couple said the firearms manufacturer is a good neighbor that helps keep local companies in business through contracts for products and services such as auto body work on corporate cars.
“Smith & Wesson has been here forever,” he said.
‘We don’t even think about it. It employs a lot of people.’Ciro Ricciardi, talking about the presence of Smith & Wesson in Springfield
“You don’t even know they’re here,” she continued.
“But try to get in there. It’s all gated!” he said.
Which makes sense if you think about it, Marcia Fuller said: “They manufacture deadly weapons.”
Still, people’s affinity for the corporation does not seem to stop their support for gun control legislation. Many local residents say they supported expanded background checks and additional safeguards for firearms — even if they took umbrage with the congressional sit-in.
Dick Fuller called it “stupid” and likened it to “a bunch of kids” throwing a tantrum saying: “Oh, I can’t get my way!”
Down the street at Vito’s Barber Shop, Michael Kakley, 54, said: “It’s not right . . . using the House floor to push your agenda and treating it with such disrespect, like they are a bunch of 1960s hippies.”
Kakley said he agrees that there should be more stringent vetting of gun owners. But, he added, partisan politics often trumps public safety when it comes to gun legislation.
Neal said House Democrats were left with little recourse besides the sit-in to get the attention of US House Republicans, which after mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif., and Aurora, Colo., he figured would be easier to do.
“This highlights how difficult it is in America today to have a conversation about these sorts of things,” he said. “The majority in the House makes no effort to accommodate the concerns of the minority. That was true when we were in the majority, and it’s true now.”
Neal said he supports background mental health checks, closing gun show loopholes, and keeping those on the government’s no-fly list from being able to purchase firearms.
“I think those are reasonable positions by any standard,” he said.
The barber shop owners’ late father once worked for Smith & Wesson. Ralph Ricciardi, 45, said when his father first emigrated from Italy, he needed steady work before he could become a citizen. At the time, authorities did not consider being a barber secure employment.
“So my father actually made guns, from ’70 to ’74,” he said while cutting a client’s hair. “He opened up his shop in ‘74.”
“It’s just like a business. It’s just like a store or something,” said David Tancrati, 58, as he waited to sit in Ralph’s chair.
“We don’t even think about it. It employs a lot of people.” Ciro Ricciardi, 47, Ralph’s brother said.
Not everyone in Springfield sees things this way.
Holland acknowledges that there’s been moments of conflict with some who see him wearing a camouflaged T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his employer.
“They say ‘well, I don’t like guns,’ ” Holland said. “And I say, ‘well, that’s your prerogative.’ ”