With a mission of disarming hearts and forging peace, the organization is building a network in service of disabling and donating guns, which are then transformed into tools that help grow sustenance for people–an outcome both deeply functional and symbolic.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
Turning guns into garden tools is at the center of the work of RAWtools. With a mission of disarming hearts and forging peace, the organization is building a network in service of disabling and donating guns, which are then transformed into tools that help grow sustenance for people–an outcome both deeply functional and symbolic. The non-profit creates a space for people to voice their stories, those behind the donated guns and those behind the garden tools subsequently produced.
RAWTools further seeks to move communities away from violence through its War No More program, which supports nonviolence trainings and advocacy, and its Vine & Fig program, which supports personal and neighborhood development to address the triggers that lead to violence. Executive director Mike Martin shares more about how RAWtools invites us to approach the world with open arms, letting love, rather than fear and hate, guide our way.
What sparked the founding/creation of RAWtools?
RAWtools started in February of 2013, two months after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. The idea of turning swords into plowshares in a contemporary context was an easy correlation to make with guns into garden tools. How it was going to happen was the hang-up. We learned of a friend who was a blacksmith, and we learned how to blacksmith in order to make this happen. Prior to Sandy Hook, RAWtools was in a mode of exploration and brainstorming. Without a doubt, the massacre of children galvanized all of us who were in thought about the possibility of RAWtools. On a personal note, my wife is an elementary school teacher, so Sandy Hook made our exposure to gun violence more real.
How does RAWtools fill a need for everyone it serves and communities as a whole?
Turning guns into garden tools is a transformational process that we feel we still have so much to learn and live into. There is a lot happening in that time of transforming a gun barrel into a garden implement. At many of our events, as well as at our shop, we invite folks who have been affected by gun violence to take a turn with the hammer and be a part of making a tool. This has added so much meaning to our work. We’ve found it to be a beneficial part of a victim and survivor’s healing process. Many have told us it was the first healthy expression of anger/grief they have been able to participate in since being injured or losing their loved one. At our events, the tool-making process is witnessed by a larger community that might otherwise be unaware of the level of trauma folks affected by gun violence have to live with for the rest of their lives.
We live in a world of data and policy. While those are important, we don’t add enough story and community witness to the trauma of gun violence-once the trauma has occurred.
A blacksmith once told us that iron ore is seen by blacksmiths of old as the blood of the earth. So when we intersect the blood of the earth with the blood of the lives lost and affected by gun violence, it creates moments of immense hope, immense pain, and profound depth. This depth is missing from our conversations on gun violence. We live in a world of data and policy. While those are important, we don’t add enough story and community witness to the trauma of gun violence-once the trauma has occurred.
From another practical perspective, we connect people to tools for conflict mediation and resolution that do not involve violence. Going from swords to plowshares requires us to move from the illusory personal and instant “justice” of a gun, to community-engaged processes like restorative justice that are proven to lower rates of recidivism as well as place offenders on paths of productivity in their community. We offer an opportunity to trade our tools of violence for tools that give life. It’s a relatively simple process to disable a gun and turn it into garden tools. That’s all in a day’s work. The hard part is to learn new ways to prevent, intervene, and heal (postvention) trauma. So we partner with other organizations already doing that work, as well as offer some nonviolence 101 workshops in our local area. Since suicide is a major portion of gun violence, intrapersonal work is also important to our vision.
How do you see RAWtools as being related to living gratefully?
Gratefulness is possible with the awareness of the fragility of what we have. We are often most grateful when we have not. We recognize how precious life is when we lose a loved one or have a close encounter with death. We recognize how valuable our big toe is to walking when we accidentally bang it on furniture. Research tells us that those who attempt suicide rarely attempt again after surviving. Attempts at suicide are also under-reported, so there is much more to learn here. We also know that pills are the number one use for suicide, but two out of every 100 complete suicide using pills as lethal means, whereas suicides attempted by firearm are completed 85 out of 100 attempts on average.
We are working at this intersection of being grateful for the right to own guns and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the triggers in our streets are proving to be a bad combination with the triggers in our hearts.
This alludes to the gift of life after coming so close to death, yet also speaks to the gravity and lethality that guns play in the United States. We have come to accept guns as a useful tool for problem solving, be it intrapersonal or interpersonal; we are told guns will solve our problem of home invasion, a diagnosis we can’t imagine we can live through, and many other painful contexts that gun violence speaks from. At some point we decided as a nation that the 110 lives lost to gun violence each day is worth the trade of unfettered gun access. We are working at this intersection of being grateful for the right to own guns and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the triggers in our streets are proving to be a bad combination with the triggers in our hearts.
RAWtools is “WAR” backward. Gun violence in the US can be turned around if we exchange our tools. Guns are three times more likely to harm those who live in the home than to be used on an intruder (five times more likely to harm women than men). The dominating narrative for solving extreme conflict is backward, and we believe our country will be much more grateful by exchanging these tools, even though it might feel raw and vulnerable to make that change.
How does RAWtools inspire gratefulness and related actions (love, kindness, compassion, etc.)?
At many of our events, especially the Beating Guns book tour in Spring of 2019, we ask for people to donate guns from the community. For many donors, they have been stuck between wanting to get rid of their gun(s), but also not wanting to sell it and reintroduce it to the marketplace or another community. So many folks express gratitude for another way to dispose of their firearm. In one case, a hunting rifle was used to take a father’s life. One of his kids held onto the gun for decades because of the meaning it had with hunting trips and its heirloom quality. He never used it though, because it had been a part of how he lost his dad. We were able to disable it, and make small custom pieces for each of his children to maintain the heirloom, while not keeping the gun in the form it had taken a life.
Most of our individual gun donations come from families that have lost someone to suicide. The firearm is often returned as property to next of kin or an estate. A large majority are happy to be rid of the gun. Even without a direct connection to loss of life, many gun donors express celebration, as well as tearful relief.
Many folks have needed an outlet to feel like they are doing something to affect change. We have a growing number of volunteers in our national network that help people across the country disable their donated guns before mailing them to us. This network is made of folks without direct connections to gun violence who want to be a part of the change, and it’s also made up of people deeply affected by gun violence. We have blacksmiths as part of that network who help make tools as well. It’s an amazing thing to watch grow and be a part of.
What inspires people to participate in RAWtools?
The anvil and forge play an iconic and symbolic role in drawing people to RAWtools. It’s hard to pass any blacksmith at a festival and not want to spend even a little time taking a peek at what they might be making. It’s a rare process that compels us to draw near. Blacksmiths used to be a requirement for a town or settlement to exist. They were a primary need to physically build a community as well as keep it running. If something broke, it was often a blacksmith that would fix it. Most trades can trace the origin of their tools to a blacksmith, including the blacksmith.
Just like the anvil and forge compel people to take a peek, the transformation of a gun into a garden tool compels people to use their imaginations to make similar transformations in their life.
Not only can a blacksmith restore a broken tool and make it functional again, but they can also transform a broken or useless tool into a different useful and functional tool. I think this is what we see happening in RAWTools, and it’s hard not to want to be a part of it. We all want to be a benefit to others.
What is the lasting impact of your offerings?
We use the words “ripple effect” to speak about gun violence, which speaks to the cause and effect of one thing leading to another and stretching out further than we may realize. We see a similar “domino effect” happening to prevent gun violence. I like to use domino effect and add a dimension to the dominos. Instead of seeing dominos all as the same size, we see one domino tipping a slightly larger domino, which then also tips a slightly larger domino, until at one point a domino falls that would have been too big for the first domino to tip over. Just like the anvil and forge compel people to take a peek, the transformation of a gun into a garden tool compels people to use their imaginations to make similar transformations in their life. Being a part of RAWtools for the last seven years has given me the privilege to see people empowered by refusing violence.
What are some of the common barriers and obstacles that arise for participants? How are they addressed?
Most people own guns for hunting and/or self defense. Target shooting is a product of that, but sport shooting is becoming too expensive to be a wide-ranging hobby. It’s a deeply personal decision to own a gun, especially for folks that own one for self defense. Making the big decision to no longer own a gun for self defense rarely happens quickly. So we try and make the process of donating a gun as seamless as possible. This is only possible if we have a national network of volunteers to help facilitate this process.
Nonviolence is an exercise in creativity that otherwise doesn’t happen if we have a gun in the drawer of the nightstand.
We know that replacing a gun with a garden tool isn’t the direct solution to keeping safe. Part of our War No More programming is a RAWpower workshop that serves as an introduction to deescalation, bystander intervention, restorative justice, and other similar nonviolent solutions to conflict. Sometimes it involves a lot of storytelling. We need to hear stories of how nonviolence works. It’s hard to ask people to be vulnerable, so it helps to model it as well as tell stories of others who have made nonviolence an example in their lives. Nonviolence is an exercise in creativity that otherwise doesn’t happen if we have a gun in the drawer of the nightstand.
There are also barriers for victims and survivors of gun violence to decide to take the hammer and hit the barrel of a gun as part of making a tool. One survivor told me she had been to multiple events, but wasn’t able to do take the hammer when invited. It’s important for us to be aware of the affects of trauma and the process each person takes to deal with it. There is no need to put anyone on another’s timeline toward healing. This is not a barrier for folks to participate, so much as it is a reminder that there is no reason to rush anyone to participate. Restorative justice is victim-based and if our work is restoration, it’s important to see it through the lens of victims and survivors.
What inspires you personally about this work? What inspires you to continue growing this project?
Every gun violence survivor that we work with inspires me. Two in particular I met when RAWtools started and both are connected to restorative justice. Sharletta Evans lost her 3-year-old son to a random drive-by shooting. 20 years later she is now an advocate for prison and gun reform AND maintains a relationship with the man who killed her son. She has testified before state and federal courts to make it illegal to sentence minors to life in prison without an opportunity for parole. The man who killed her son was a teenager at the time of the shooting and because of her testimony, he will have an opportunity for parole. Sharletta was the first person in Colorado to do a high-risk victim offender dialogue in which she met with the man who killed her son. This involved months of preparation for her and the offender. She would also later meet with the driver of the car as well. Sharletta is my hero.
Laurie Works lost her sisters in the New Life church shooting when she was 16. When she was old enough she took training to conceal carry. When it came time to purchase a gun, she couldn’t bring herself to have the capacity to take the life of another person and do to another family what was done to hers. Laurie has since developed resilience Yoga as a Yoga teacher and helps other gun violence survivors. She has written open letters to congress and offered insight to the work of RAWtools at a critical time in our development.
We should all be grateful for the work and stories that survivors tell from their experience of gun violence. There isn’t enough of us who haven’t been affected doing this work. Folks affected by gun violence, especially women and women of color, are carrying this work. It’s about time the rest of us take more of that weight.
How does gratefulness inspire you to make change in the world?
It’s hard for me to think of gratefulness without thinking of privilege. I often find that the less we have the more grateful we are. I don’t think I’m alone in that. If we apply this lens to the systems that decide how we live together, we find that its most often the people who have the most who make decisions for people that have the least. I’m not saying that people who have a lot of things, dependable living-wage work, and/or privilege can’t be grateful. But I have to ask why there are more gun stores than McDonalds? Or why is it that for the urban poor, it’s easier to have access to a gun than fresh food? The fewer resources and less help we have, the easier it is for the triggers in our hearts to squeeze a trigger in our streets. Our ability to be grateful is not always our choice. Some may say we always have the power to make our own decisions. It takes an unbelievable amount of resilience to remain grateful in the midst of trauma.
It is the gratefulness of folks who have been affected by gun violence that inspires me–someone without a direct connection to gun violence–to keep working at preventing another crisis.
Gun violence speaks from many intersections of trauma. Suicide is often a breakdown in multiple spaces–financial difficulty; family, work, or school trouble; social media influence. When we are confronted with challenges in any of these major life areas, especially in more than one area at the same time, it’s not hard to imagine feeling overwhelmed and even incapable of handling it. So we take drastic steps. Instead of asking for help we might steal it. We might take our own life. This is compounded when the structure of our society makes it harder to access help. As a faith-based organization, I feel like there is an opportunity to use the networks of faith communities to help fill the gaps. So many survivors of gun violence lean on their faith communities after trauma and it’s inspiring to see the ability of a neighborhood to support a person in crisis. It is the gratefulness of folks who have been affected by gun violence that inspires me–someone without a direct connection to gun violence–to keep working at preventing another crisis.
How does RAWtools plan to grow?
We have always depended on slow and healthy, organic growth. One of the biblical passages that calls for swords to be turned into plowshares also speaks of sitting under a vine and fig tree in fear of no other. The fig tree takes about seven years to grow, mature, and bear fruit. We are in our seventh year and have experienced our largest growth and expansion of our disarming network across the country. We are seeing the fruit of a lot of work from a lot of volunteers coming together to end gun violence. Our focus is making sure we equip these volunteers with what they need to help us carry out our mission. It’s hard to change someone’s mind with data and statistics. From the beginning we’ve relied on word of mouth, which is highly relational. Our hearts are disarmed when we hear each other’s stories and begin to work together. This will always be our fundamental mode of growth.
If you could encapsulate one message for people who participate in RAWtools, what would that be?
Be present. This is a continual message from survivors of gun violence. Be present with yourself, in your home, in your neighborhood, and in your community. If we are better neighbors, we will be less violent. This can often be uncomfortable at first, but that little step of vulnerability goes a long way.
If RAWtools could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?
We often speak in agricultural metaphors. The harvest is a season of gratefulness, and it’s easy for us to try and be in a continual season of harvest, constantly producing something. But if we aren’t present in the planting season and the nurturing season and even in the rest of winter, we can’t be present for the harvest. If we only see the harvest as a time to be grateful, we miss the opportunity to be grateful for rest, planting, and caring. This is at the heart of trading a sword for a plowshare: It moves from a view of individual, instant “justice” to long term, community-based seasonal presence. Finding our seasonal rhythms fosters a space for gratefulness to be an integral part of our life.
To read more about the transformative work of RAWtools, visit the website: RAWtools.org
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers
Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.