The recent events in Las Vegas have many people wondering what they can do to help address gun violence in this country. For some, it means calling their congressperson or signing petitions. For one man in Colorado Springs, it means offering people a symbolic way to dispose of their firearms. His organization, founded in 2013, is called RAWtools, and it takes unwanted guns and turns them into gardening tools.
In a small garage in Colorado Springs, Mike Martin pulls a glowing hot piece of steel from a roaring table-top forge. Using a pair of tongs, he places it onto an anvil, and pounds it flat.
“We’re just working on a garden tool, it’s a two-sided tool," he explains. "One side is a hoe and one side is a fork. So it’s just a handheld tool. It came from about 6-8 inches of a gun barrel.”
About half-a-dozen gun barrels sit on a nearby shop table.
“You can make different tools out of different barrels," says Martin. "Shotgun barrels we make little hand spades out of because they’re already almost in that finished state, you just have to fillet them open to make a garden tool. And then something like an assault rifle has a thicker barrel to handle the higher rate of fire, so those make this garden mattock that we’re making now.”
Martin is a practicing Anabaptist Mennonite. He says a verse from the Old Testament inspired him to start RAWTools.
“In Isaiah Chapter 2 and in Micah Chapter 4, it talks about beating your swords to plowshares, nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor train for war anymore,” he explains. He says he wanted to apply that idea in a modern context. “Swords of today are guns, and the plowshares of today are garden tools.”
The guns are donated – either by individuals or by groups around the country that organize gun buy-backs. After they’re transformed into garden tools, Martin usually returns them to the donor, gives the tools to a community garden, or sells them to the public to raise money for operating expenses.
“They’re quality tools," he says, "so they’re worth the price, both because of their quality but also because of what stands behind them.”
Martin says he’d been thinking about doing something like this for many years. But it was the shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012 that finally motivated him to start RAWtools.
"The same amount of people that were killed were also the same number that were in my wife’s first grade class," he recalls. "So although I don’t have a direct connection to gun violence myself, that was kind of one of the ways that brought it home for me.”
He was so moved that he bought a forge, and started learning traditional blacksmithing techniques. Once he was comfortable, he began traveling the country, offering demonstrations, and allowing people to try their hand at pounding a gun barrel into the shape of a garden tool.
It seemed to provide a kind of catharsis, especially for those who’d been directly affected by gun violence.
“The idea is you bang on the barrel when it’s orange and glowing, because that’s when it’s malleable. But when you have a mother that lost her son to gun violence when he was three, and she starts pounding on that gun barrel, you don’t really care that it’s dark and cold, you just let her pound away, because you recognize that it’s doing something for her.”
Martin says the blacksmithing process has a similarly therapeutic effect for him, particularly in the wake of mass tragedies like the recent shooting in Las Vegas.
“You know, me personally, I couldn’t wait to get to the forge today, after the Las Vegas shooting," he explains, "because it was a tangible way for me to kind of unload some emotion in a controlled environment.”
In the nearly four years since he started RAWtools, Martin estimates he’s taken in a couple hundred guns, and made around 60 garden tools – tiny numbers in comparison to the nearly 300 million guns in America. He says he recognizes the complexity of the gun debate, and doesn’t expect to turn all the nation’s firearms into spades and hoes. But, he see a role for organizations like his, which advocate for nonviolence at the grassroots level, provide a ritual space for processing grief, and offer symbolic tools for sowing peace in the world.
"So we’ve got an olive branch that goes through the anvil in our logo, and so we put that olive branch on our handle, so you’re literally gripping an olive branch as kind of a promise of peace, a peaceful way forward.”