Nonprofits turn guns into garden tools

Shane Claiborne and Mike Martin believe in redemption.

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That goes for people.

And guns.

The Philadelphia men take donated guns and turn them into handy garden tools.

An AK-47 becomes a shovel and a rake. A pistol becomes a hand trowel.

Now they cultivate life, not take it.

“We’re not trying to take guns away from people. We’re trying to save lives,” said Claiborne, a community activist and founder of the Simple Way, a nonprofit that focuses on community organizing and development in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philly.

Claiborne and Martin have taken this philosophy of turning firearms into tools on a tour, which is stopping in Mableton on Saturday.

Claiborne grew up in Tennessee, where many of his friends and relatives were hunters and gun owners.

When he moved to Philadelphia, though, he got tired of hearing about so many deaths due to gun violence. A youngster once asked Claiborne why there were so many guns in a city when there weren’t many deer.

He didn’t have an answer.

“We grew up saying we were pro-life,” said Claiborne. “But abortion isn’t the only pro-life issue. How can you be pro-life and be pro-gun and pro-death penalty? It’s a bit of a contradiction and troubling. We just want to be consistently for life.”

He cites Scripture, Isaiah 2:4: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations will not raise swords against nations, and they will not learn warfare anymore.”

Claiborne and Martin, a Mennonite pastor, blacksmith and founder of the nonprofit RAWtools, will be in Mableton at 6 p.m. Saturday as part of a 37-city "Beating Guns" tour that stops at Vinings Lake Church, 75 Cooper Lake Road SE. There will be demonstrations, music and artists.

So far, the tour has stopped in churches, convention and community centers and even on street corners. Audiences have ranged from 50 to 500 people.

People contact them ahead of time to donate weapons ( soon as an empty gun is brought in, it's made inoperable and chopped up on the spot, becoming basically scrap metal at that point.

Survivors, victims and families of those affected by gun violence are then invited to gather around the forge. It can be therapeutic. One night, among those gathered were the family of a father who killed his wife, then took his own life; and a woman who lost four family members.

“People say it’s not a gun problem; it’s a heart problem,” said Martin. “We say it’s both.”

In fact, experts say gun violence has become a public health issue.

In 2017, nearly 40,000 people in the United States died from gun violence, fueled in part by suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Martin said some people avoid use of the word “accident” because usually “there is something that could have been done to prevent it.” In addition to the tool aspect of the tour, Martin said they talk to people about nonviolent conflict resolution, de-escalating situations and providing resources for those considering suicide.

“We come from a lot of different places,” he said.

Surprisingly, said Claiborne, some of their biggest allies have been gun owners. There are gun owners, he said, who want more stringent background checks or are against assault rifles. "Reasonable people want to see change."

Related: Metro Atl houses of worship wary after mass shooting

Brontë Velez, a native of Atlanta who now lives in Oakland, California, runs a similar program called “Lead to Life,” which also makes shovels from guns.

They work with various gun buyback programs and accept individually donated guns that are then turned into shovels. The shovels are then used to plant trees in different cities around the nation — including places where people have died from gun violence, and historic sites.

In Atlanta, during a week of commemorative ceremonies to observe the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Lead to Life” held a soil collection ceremony on the site where an African-American man, Mack Brown, was murdered in 1936 in Roswell after he allegedly kissed the hand of a white woman.

The nonprofit collected soil with a RawTools trowel. The soil was then sent to the Equal Justice Initiative in support of its Community Remembrance Project and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Additionally, the soil collected from the lynching site was planted with 50 trees across Atlanta using shovels made from weapons.

"The symbol of a gun is so strong," said Velez. "This is a way for people to reimagine guns. It gives them space to pause and opens up their hearts."

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