The gun that killed Tom Miller sat locked in an antique chest for 47 years, stashed underneath police reports, crime photos and autopsy documents from the homicide case.
“It’s the sort of thing where you know it’s there… but you don’t know what to do with it,” Stephen Miller, Tom’s brother, told NationSwell.
The gun lay undisturbed for nearly five decades — out of sight, but never really out of mind — until Miller, now 62, cleaned out his childhood home. And with his mother focused on her transition into an assisted living center, it fell to Miller to decide what to do with it.
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. But Miller didn’t necessarily want to give the gun away, despite the tragedy it brought into his family’s life. He suspected the weapon might find greater purpose beyond the reason it was built.
“I still want to have that connection to what happened,” he said. “But I want it to be turned towards positive action.”
And so, rather than dispose of the weapon through a police-sponsored program, Miller found his way to RAWtools, a faith-based gun nonviolence nonprofit that helps families like his recycle unwanted firearms. With their help, the gun that killed Tom Miller — a gun that brought so much anguish into the lives of Stephen and his family — will help something beautiful bloom. Literally.
Swords to Plowshares, the RAWtools program working to repurpose Miller’s weapon, draws its name from a notable verse from the Old Testament that says world peace is only possible when weapons are transformed into farming tools. Inspired by that passage, Swords to Plowshares breaks down unwanted guns and turns them into garden tools. It’s seen AR-15s become spades, AK-47s morph into plows and gun barrels experience new life as mattocks, hoes and trowels.
Mike Martin, executive director of the organization, cited the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 as the reason he took action to help end gun violence.
“It feels productive to be able to take something that was designed to take life and turn it into something that can give life,” Martin said of Swords to Plowshares’ methods.
In the United States, white Christians have one of the highest rates of gun ownership. Forty-one percent of white evangelicals and 33 percent of white protestant mainliners reported owning a gun, compared to the national gun ownership average of 30 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans claim safety as the number one reason for gun ownership. But in October 2017, Scientific American cited dozens of studies that show the exact opposite is true: more guns actually lead to more violent crime, not less.
Martin, a former pastor, said he’s not there to judge his fellow Christians — rather, he hopes to use his organization to start a conversation that might change the narrative on gun ownership.
“It’s hard to carry a gun in one hand and a cross in the other,” he told NationSwell. “So we ask questions and we have a meaningful dialogue about that.”
Martin’s organization hosts events where gun violence survivors and allies meet in church parking lots to repurpose former weapons. As guns are sawed, metal sparks; so do conversations. People of all faiths — or no faith at all — are welcome to take part.
Here’s what those participating may see: a human whose life was impacted by gun violence speaks to their experience while a donated gun is disarmed. The weapon is heated thousands of degrees until the metal glows, signaling that it’s hot enough to reshape. Anyone impacted by gun violence can take a turn hitting the heated gun barrel against an anvil to begin its reshaping process.
A mother might strike the weapon 18 times to remember her 18-year-old child who died from suicide. Or a student might hit it in memory of a lost friend and classmate. Most recently, the barrel was struck in memory of the at least 50 victims who lost their lives in the March mass shooting at Christchurch in New Zealand.
After this shared ritual, the metal will be reforged into garden tools. Some of those tools end up in the homes of people who donated guns. Others will find their way to community gardens. The rest are sold to support RAWtools’ mission, with some of the proceeds helping the organization expand its outreach and create a national disarming network where people can bring a gun to be disarmed and donated.
“There’s a lot of grief, but there’s also something that happens at the anvil that pivots it towards hope,” Martin said. “We know that there’s a way out of it.”
For people who have experienced emotional and spiritual pain, there is powerful alchemy in welding together the symbolic and the literal. Though the organization doesn’t always do this, RAWTools set aside some of the pieces of the gun that killed Tom Miller to be reforged into a cross, a holy symbol from Miller’s faith emblematic of the church, the divine and the possibility of hope and healing from death.
Unlike the gun, that cross won’t be locked away for decades. Miller said he plans to carry it with him everywhere he goes.