When French designer Sébastien Legros set out to design a toy pistol, he went to a hardware store.
“I wanted something reminiscent of the toy guns made popular in movies,” he told the New York Times. The tank, motorcycle, frog, and submarine he’d envisioned looked perfectly at home in the 1980s action films he loved.
And they didn’t cost anything. Each one of Legros’s carbon fiber and nylon guns was produced in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, which produces everything from iPhones to washing machines — on high-speed assembly lines below the poverty line.
And Legros bought the guns from a well-known vendor in the U.S., who was planning to export them to the Middle East and Europe. Legros bought them using money he’d invested in his own corporate startup, a local upstart in China called Cardbox, an e-commerce platform.
“For a new company, there’s no better way to raise money,” Legros told the Times.
But the guns Legros imported from Shenzhen were different from anything he’d ever seen. They were real, not simply like cardboard replicas. The clanks and pops that gave “movie gun” any semblance of realism were absent. The movement was artificial, specifically to convey a sense of real destruction.
Legros gave these toys a slightly retro Western feel, inspired by his trips to shoot guns in places like Dubai and Singapore, and then devised a new coding language for their games. Soon, Legros had enough money to leave China. He began work on his idea, a machine gun for the modern age. It was about to get real.
But last year, Legros decided to venture to New York. On a whim, he bought his guns in a New York City gun store and created a new organization, “Clean Slate,” to distribute his toys to youth across the world.
Legros met with his security guards and was shocked to learn that he had become the target of a six-year-old crime spree. He said that one of his guards was caught and sentenced to 10 years for buying weapons. His guards were regularly stopped by police, some of whom detained him and even threatened to arrest him for smuggling.
But after repeated visits to China’s Supreme Court, Legros was given a long jail sentence. In July of last year, he was given a 20-year sentence.
Legros is now free, but his departure brought his story to a shattering and tense end.
His lawyer was assassinated on March 12, the day before Legros was due to be transferred to another prison. Before he was killed, he shouted, “Don’t they know that I’m a famous person in New York?”
At the time of his execution, Legros told his lawyer in a letter: “May your life hold no evil and never die. With all of my soul, I ask you to forgive me.”