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Colorado nonprofit forges peace by turning guns into garden tools

Mike Martin, executive director of Raw Tools, at a blacksmithing event where guns are transformed into garden tools.
courtesy of Raw Tools
Mike Martin, executive director of Raw Tools, at a blacksmithing event where guns are transformed into garden tools.

Disarming hearts, forging peace, and cultivating justice by turning guns into garden tools is  the mission of Raw Tools, a Colorado Springs nonprofit with chapters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and around the Great Lakes regions.

Mike Martin, executive director of Raw Tools, says the focus is on healing from gun trauma.

“We'll often have events where we hear from survivors and their experience with gun violence. And while that's happening, we have a blacksmith taking a locally donated firearm and turning it into a garden tool. But then we invite the survivor and their community into that process” said Martin. “It's destroying something that brought them pain, but simultaneously turning it into something that cultivates life.”

When the survivor tells their story and the community around them listens, it reinforces that trauma and grief are lifelong experiences.

The firearms are usually donated by individuals or collected at public events.

“They look a little bit like traditional buybacks, even though they're not that, people can bring them in. We give them a gift card as a thank you, but before they get the gift card, we're destroying (the firearm),” explained Martin.

People turn in firearms for various reasons, including inheritance or safety concerns such as health crises where there is a fear of self-harm or harm to others. Some parents also feel it is less safe to have firearms at home as their children grow older and start exploring the house.

”One of the stories we had recently—a 16-year-old asked her dad to give up his guns as her birthday present. They came into the drive-through where we checked the firearms and then destroyed them. As her dad handed over the firearm (his daughter) started to cry because he listened, and then he started to cry because I don't think he fully realized the impact this had on his children. And I think this is true across our generations, that we have a generation that grew up in lockdown drills in schools and their parents didn't have to grow up in that,” Martin said.

While the issue of gun ownership and gun control is complex and multifaceted, attention is often focused on gun violence in the aftermath of mass shootings. However, the reality is that most gun deaths happen in the home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of gun-related deaths are suicides. Most people who use a gun in a suicide attempt die from their injury.

“The gun violence that happens in the home that we don't hear about, that doesn't hit the news cycle, is that it's even more lonely to deal with that grief and trauma, and it's hard to find healthy outlets for that,” Martin explained.

“When you've been impacted by gun violence directly, deal with that grief, that trauma, the more tools for people to help with that, the better.”

Raw Tools collaborates with blacksmiths to transform guns into jewelry, art, and garden tools.

Martin says turning a weapon into a tool that can be used to cultivate new life is transformative..

“There's a lot of connection to gardening and greening spaces when we see that in blighted areas and then that area suddenly feels like it's being cared for and so it changes our behavior too. So a lot is happening while we transform ourselves and our communities, it encourages us to keep growing in healthy ways,” said Martin. “We need safe spaces to deal with our grief.”

For the month of June, Raw Tools is hosting its second annual marathon, during which blacksmiths across the country forge for one minute for every life lost to gun violence. In 2023, that figure was approximately 44,000.

The work is livestreamed on Facebook.

“It's a hopeful time to say a lot of us want to see change. This is one way to do that. And it's another safe space. A lot of survivors partake in this too. Survivors tell us it's the healthiest way they've dealt with their anger, even 30 years after an incident,” Martin said.

As a Mennonite faith-based organization, the idea of turning swords into plowshares came to fruition for Martin after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Martin and his wife, an elementary school teacher, felt they needed to do something.

“When that happened, the circle got too close for us to feel like we couldn't do anything about it. And so we started building this organization and just talking to different people who wanted to get involved and we've really just followed the voices of victims and survivors as to these are the needs they need filled and so we try and fill those needs as best we can.”

Martin says blacksmithing offers a unique opportunity to have conversations about responsible gun ownership.

“Blacksmithing can feel masculine. That doesn't mean it's just a masculine thing, but there is an overlap between the gun community and the blacksmithing community that people like to plug into. Or, there's an overlap with responsible gun owners who want to see common sense change,” he said.

“We have gun donors who give us their handguns, but they won't give us their assault rifles or their hunting rifles or a different mix of that. They'll give us their assault rifles, but they want to keep their handguns for self-defense.” Martin continues “Humans are complex, so just because you're a gun owner doesn't mean you're like every other gun owner. And just because you don't like guns doesn't mean you're like everybody else who doesn't like guns,” Martin said.

Rawtools is hosting a series of Guns to Gardens Safe Surrender events this Summer.

These are anonymous events where people can surrender any type of gun. The firearms are destroyed on-site and will be repurposed as artwork, jewelry or gardening tools.

Copyright 2024 Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico including KSJD.