Tiago Renê Torres Da Silva leaves details in every tool he forges. Details that have stories. Silva, a blacksmith by trade, takes disarmed guns and turns them into garden tools.
Maybe the detail is a scratch on the barrel or a front sight that will be incorporated into the garden tool he’ll soon reshape.
“You want them to know it [once] was a gun,” he said.
Silva might not know who the gun belonged to or the story behind it, but he knows the pain from gun violence. Growing up in a small town in Brazil, Silva had friends die by gunfire. “There’s a lot of things that happened with guns there that I don’t like,” he said.
Silva emigrated to the States in 2016, but he hardly left gun culture behind. That’s because he now lives in New Mexico, where gun ownership clocks in at about 50 percent, compared to the national average of 30 percent.
So it makes sense that New Mexico has higher firearm mortality rates than the country’s average — a rate that has increased nearly twice as fast in New Mexico than in the rest of the country. For Silva, speaking of his life in Brazil, “only the police and bad guys have guns.” But in New Mexico, “it feels like everyone has a gun.”
Silva now works for New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence (NMPGV), a nonprofit that works to reduce gun violence through programming and training. One program, called Guns to Gardens, buys back guns and transforms them into gardening tools.
“We take better care of our guns than our people here,” said Miranda Viscoli, the co-president of NMPGV.
About two and a half years ago, Viscoli was brainstorming with a friend, and they came up with Guns to Gardens, modeled off of a similar program called RAWtools, which we recently reported on. Guns to Gardens is a buyback program where gun owners anonymously turn in their weapons and receive gift cards in return.
After rates of gun violence spiked across the nation in the mid-1990s, nonprofits, police departments and communities turned to buyback programs in an attempt to lessen gun violence.
Research shows that buybacks might not be the best solution to ending gun violence. In general, households that participated in buybacks still retained ownership of at least one gun and the guns collected are usually the least likely to be used in crimes.
Sabrina Arredondo Mattson, a research associate at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, said although buybacks are ineffective when it comes to lowering violence, there may be potential for buybacks to raise awareness.
“It depends on what your goal is, if the goal is to build awareness, then that may be working,” Arredondo Mattson said. “If the goal and what you’re trying to do is reduce youth gun violence, that’s not an effective approach.”
Viscoli said she kept hearing similar criticisms, but when she saw pictures of a gun buyback in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and saw how many assault weapons and automatic handguns were turned in, she said, “We will do gun buybacks.”
Viscoli said a third of the weapons they receive are semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons, which are the most common guns used in crimes.
Buybacks paired with other NMPGV initiatives, like student pledge campaigns and public education, can have an impact. Gun buybacks might remove only a small percentage of a community’s weapons, but it provides a way for people to take action while showing support for victims, and also raise awareness of issues around gun violence.
Arredondo Mattson agreed that gun buybacks may work as supplemental programming. “Combined with other strategies that are aimed at and have been shown to reduce gun violence then it might be a good add on.” But she stressed that evidence-based prevention programs are the most successful strategy to lower violence.
The difference between NMPGV’s program and a typical buyback is that the gun’s life doesn’t stop there. The guns are dismantled and brought to Silva, who reshapes them into gardening tools. The money from the garden tools is used to purchase more gift cards for buybacks.
Which propels the cycle of awareness. NMPGV hosted seven gun buybacks in the past two years and collected over 400 guns.
“We see firsthand that these are objects that people really don’t want in their home, people don’t feel safe with them anymore,” Viscoli said. “And this gives them the opportunity to get rid of them.”
Viscoli said a majority of the guns are from parents who don’t want a gun in the house, widows who have no idea what to do with their partner’s guns and families with members who have suicidal thoughts or dementia. About 95 percent have brought guns in because of safety issues, Viscoli said.
“There’s a sense of relief on their face,” she said. “They’re so grateful we can take these guns.”