This article is Part Two in our series on the most innovative solutions within the Circular Economy. 

In the United States, there are limited options to dispose of unwanted firearms. Some police departments host gun buybacks, where people can bring weapons in exchange for cash. Other police departments will always accept people’s guns, no questions asked. As a direct consequence of this dearth of options, there are more weapons in people’s homes and on the streets, and therefore more potential for them to inflict needless — and in some cases deadly — harm.

One faith-based nonprofit in Colorado has found a unique solution to this problem: recycling these unwanted firearms by forging them into garden tools at live events, and then gifting the newly recycled weapons back to families that have experienced harm in the hopes that the families will use them to tend garden and create life.

RAWTools, the organization leading this charge, has seen AR-15s become spades, AK-47s morph into plows and gun barrels experience new life as mattocks, hoes and trowels.

As part of our series on solutions in the Circular Economy, NationSwell spoke to Mike Martin, the co-founder and Executive Director of RAWTools, the organization that’s making it all happen. This is what he had to say.

Thank you for taking the time today, Mike. Please tell me about yourself and your organization.

RAWTools is mostly faith based, but we function in a lot of space that isn’t specifically faith related. I come from a Mennonite, Anabaptist background, and that tradition has a focus on non-violence. This program, Swords to Plowshares, draws its name from an Old Testament verse about sitting under a fig tree — a reference people are becoming more aware of because of the musical Hamilton — where everyone has what they need, no longer living in fear of one another.

It’s not that we think we can eliminate fear, but we can build and encourage spaces where fear doesn’t dictate our decision making.

We’re rooted in restorative justice and transformative justice. So a lot of what we do is victim-centered and focused and really informed by stories of victims and survivors of gun violence. Through Swords to Plowshares, we create and encourage those spaces by going around the country doing events where we turn guns that have brought harm into garden tools, and at these events, we invite folks impacted by gun violence to share their stories. After they share their story at these events, they come over to the anvil, and they take a turn with the hammer, and help make the gun into a garden tool. And the community that’s there at the event gets to see that, and that moment where they see it, where they experience each other, that’s why we do what we do.

We do our work to expose the injustices that bring about gun violence, but also to help under resourced communities see the devastation and trauma that gun violence can cause, and that these victims and survivors will have to deal with that trauma for the rest of their lives — that it’s not something they can escape from, that they’re continually healing from it. And it’s hard to understand that unless you hear someone else’s story.

But once you hear it, you’re motivated to take action in your lives, your families and in your neighborhoods, whether it’s with us or not.

What do you hear from people at the end of your events, once they have the garden tool?

I think that folks who have been affected by gun violence, it’s hard for them to imagine a way out. And when we turn, their gun into a garden tool, they see that there’s a way out, a path towards healing.

For other people at the events, we also make sure we partner with other organizations — so if someone may not be keen on helping us blacksmith turning guns in the garden tools, they might be really motivated to help the local advocacy group with whatever their passions are. So we try to have multiple organizations represented. Plus, we’re usually in and out of town in a day or two, so we want to help build relationships with other organizations wherever we visit. So a lot of people are grateful for the connections that were made at these events.

Do you ever hear from people that they’re actually gardening with the tools, or does it become more of a keepsake?

Absolutely. I say at every event, “It’s fine if you treat this like an art piece on a shelf, but please, get it dirty once in a while. Put it to work.” Because the idea is that we take something that was made to bring death into something that is made to cultivate life. We recycle them into tools that help bring life into the world, that build a better world, that they can grow, and eat and even sell — and that’s why you have to get it dirty and put it to use.

Since we’re talking about the circular economy, one of the things we’ve found, and that we hear from our participants, is that everything that gets made from a donated gun always sells for more than what that gun would have sold for by itself.

That’s how we make the economics of this work, and the economics of this are really important to me. We think about peace and doing the right thing as separate from increasing your bottom line. And we’re showing that this works, that you can sustain a happy and prosperous life by working to dismantle violence. The earned income from our tools is what’s keeping us afloat right now. As we get bigger, we’re hoping to employ full time blacksmiths, to help more people find their careers in this space that recycles tools for killing.

We hear from people with political careers, or who are directors of other nonprofits, that they have the tools made from repurposed guns on their desks as a way of initiating conversation, a way of opening people up to this. And that’s one way to put the tool to work: If you’re a leader, you can help to break the ice in a in a conversation about transformative justice or restorative justice in your community.

How did COVID-19 affect your work?

We haven’t held any of our live events since the pandemic started, and we made the active choice not to hold digital events. Of course, we’ve taken a financial hit. But more than, it’s just something we’ve deeply missed over this last year — but we feel strongly about this choice.

This doesn’t work over Zoom. When people talk about their experience with gun violence, sometimes they just need — sometimes you just need someone to hug you, you know? You need that physical. You need to see — actually see — their facial expressions as you’re talking to them.

Sometimes you just know you can’t have six feet between you and somebody else.

To learn more about why we need more investment in the circular economy, read our introduction to this series.