It looks like an artisan garden tool, rough metal edges and intentional heft made for loosening soil, planting seeds and tending the earth. Unless you spotted a serial number, you’d never know that the mattock—with a fork on one side and a hoe on the other—was made from a gun.
But that’s what Raw Tools does. The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization turns guns into garden tools, the modern embodiment of the biblical verse about beating “swords into plowshares” and learning war no more.
It was an idea that Michael Martin, a former Mennonite youth pastor, had been discussing with friends for a while when a shooter walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire. When the rampage was over, 20 children and six staff members had been killed.
“When Sandy Hook happened, the amount of people who died were the same number of people who were in my wife’s first grade class,” says Martin.
It was just the sort of nudge that turns concept to action. Martin and his father learned to blacksmith, and in 2013 they launched Raw Tools.
In the past five years, the group has taken in about 400 weapons—shotguns, rifles and handguns—to transform them from vehicles of destruction into tools of creation. Some arrive with a story attached, some offer no explanation. Some are the product of community buybacks, some have been used in suicides. Martin doesn’t ask any questions. He teaches people to disarm their weapons, receives the shipments and forges a hoe or a spade or a fork from the metal, then sends them back something new—an instrument of life born from an instrument of death.
With gun control once again in the national spotlight in the wake of another school shooting, A Beautiful Perspective got on the phone with Martin to talk about turning swords into plowshares, adopting restorative justice and changing the conversation on guns in America. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Raw Tools does more than blacksmithing. What is the organization all about?
There are three focuses of what Raw Tools does. The first one is actually turning swords into plowshares, guns to garden tools. The second aspect is also based on scripture, it talks about training for war no more. So providing workshops or partnering with organizations that do restorative justice or conflict mediation. Non-violence training, deescalation, active-bystander training. Basically, if you’re not going to have a gun, how can you create safer communities?
The scripture ends with sitting under a vine and fig tree with fear of no other. We’re talking about how fear dictates the decisions we make, as well as partnering people with resilience practices. In restorative justice they often talk about the victim/offender cycle and getting people out of the that cycle. The other part of being under a vine and fig tree is that you have the food and shelter that you need to survive, so economic development or neighborhood development and how faith communities can play that role. That’s what we’re growing into.
How does the process work?
If somebody wants to donate the gun to us, we offer a program where we’ll turn it into a garden tool for free for them, and then we keep whatever’s remaining to turn it into more tools or art or jewelry.
When somebody does that, we have to teach them to disable the gun first so they can legally transfer it to us. Once we have the gun, there’s an hour to two-hour process per tool to make it. A rifle barrel, a five- or six-inch section will give us a tool. A lot of rifles, whether it’s a .22 rifle or a higher caliber rifle or shotgun can give us anywhere from four to six tools per gun. Handguns we can usually get one tool out of. If it’s an older one, maybe more because there’s less plastic in the older guns.
What do you turn that rifle barrel into?
We make it into a two-sided garden tool that we call a mattock. It’s got a fork on one side and a hoe on the other. A handgun tool would just be one-sided—just a fork or usually it’s a hoe. Shotguns we can turn into little handheld garden spades. Each gun kind of dictates what tool we make.
Can you tell the finished tool came from a weapon?
It looks completely different. I have a shovel in front of me that has a piece of it that was the site at the end of the shotgun. Sometimes we’ll keep a serial number or small parts of the gun, but you wouldn’t know it was a gun unless I told you. Part of that is because we don’t want to romanticize what guns are. It definitely doesn’t look like other garden tools, but you wouldn’t be able to guess that it came from a gun.
When someone does send you a gun, do they tell you why?
Sometimes they do, and sometimes they just want to get rid of it. They don’t want to tell us. Sometimes the gun was involved with a suicide. It’s property, it’s been returned to the next of kin, and they just want to get rid of it.
Recently after Parkland, Florida, I just got an email from a teacher who has a gun and doesn’t want it in circulation anymore, so he’s giving it to us. Usually when tragedy happens we see a spike in people giving us their guns. We’ve got half a dozen AR-15s that we’ll probably get because that was the gun used in Parkland.
Have any of the stories that you’ve heard from people surrendering guns stuck out to you?
One was from a youth pastor who basically convinced leadership at his church to not have armed security at the church. Once he did that, he realized he was a gun owner and he had to do something about it. So he donated his handgun to us. He was accountable to his own actions with his church. That’s one that really sticks out to me.
People are passionate on all sides of the gun debate. Through Raw Tools, have you had interesting conversations about ending the cycle of gun violence with people who own guns?
You kind of start the dialogue as not really putting importance on your right to own a gun, but on why they need six of them or why they need 100 rounds or why they need 20 rounds. We kind of get into the nuance of it, because it’s not the black and white issue that we sometimes paint it to be.
Especially since we’re a faith-based organization, we challenge people, especially fellow Christians, where’s the example of why you need this tool? If you’re spending so much time on this tool and training with this tool, what other things are you not spending your time on? … We just challenge people to back up what they’re saying, and you find out that there’s a story or a traumatic event in their past, or they’re a responsible gun owner that only has a rifle and isn’t part of the national debate that everyone frames each stereotype to fall into.
I’ve learned that stereotypes, including my own, don’t matter when you start to have a relationship with people, and you find out it’s not an easy conversation to have. If you can get past the stereotypes and build a relationship, you build that respect no matter how different that perspective is.
Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Lowdown, ABP’s weekly roundup of under-the-radar headlines, mind-blowing science and emerging talent. Make your Tuesday a little cooler.