Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in these United States, Americans often found themselves battling another scourge: gun violence. As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, confinement and isolation have not slowed the prevalence of gun-related deaths.
According to Mike Martin, executive director of local nonprofit RAWtools, gun violence kills more than 100 people in the United States each day. It’s a number that he hopes to change through new solutions that don’t rely on the same old binary debate of gun control versus the Second Amendment.
Martin is a former youth and young adult pastor trained in restorative justice and conflict mediation. His organization embraces its mission to “disarm hearts and forge peace” through several unique initiatives that take a transformative approach to how we think about guns and violence as a response to conflict.
“El Paso and Teller [counties’] rates of gun ownership per capita are some of the highest in the country,” says Martin. “El Paso County ranks 10th for counties with populations over 500,000 and Teller ranks eighth for counties of any size. This doesn’t mean gun ownership is inherently evil, but it does mean we have access to firearms at a higher rate than most of the country and that matters when we are in moments of crisis.”
RAWtools’ lead program is called Swords to Plowshares, a creative initiative that turns guns into garden tools. The title of the program comes from a biblical verse in the book of Isaiah, which states that once-warring men will “beat their swords into plowshares and turn their spears into pruning hooks.” The purpose of the program reflects this sentiment: Take a tool of destruction and turn it into something constructive that fosters life instead of taking it.
Martin, who learned blacksmithing for the specific purpose of turning guns into garden tools, notes that weapon conversion isn’t just practical — it’s also cathartic. The act of creating can be healing, and participants often engage in thought-provoking conversation during the process and gain a new understanding of the impacts of gun violence on victims and society.
“It’s a beautiful moment that takes the traumatic energy and transforms it toward a life-giving space, both literally in the garden tool, as well as opening our hearts and minds to work toward nonviolent conflict solutions.”
Constructive conflict resolution is taught in RAWtools’ War No More program, which teaches participants to de-escalate situations without relying on violence or threats of harm. Training workshops focus on open dialog, mental health first aid and restorative justice to prevent volatile situations from turning deadly. Because fear lies at the heart of violence, RAWtools has also developed Vine and Fig, an initiative that helps people reflect honestly on the fears and biases that drive how they respond to others.
“The work of gun violence prevention is so often carried by victims and survivors,” says Martin. “The rest of us need to help carry that weight. We often say that our work should move us toward welcoming each other with open arms, not bearing arms.”
After nearly eight years, Martin says RAWtools is outgrowing its current home in a donated garage; the organization is working to raise money to move into a larger space where it can expand its existing programs and begin developing new initiatives, such as an internship program and increased volunteer opportunities.
Martin envisions creating a retreat for victims of gun violence and a space for organizers to work on preventive measures. Until then, RAWtools will continue its mission of healing and violence prevention while expanding its outreach to other states
“It takes a lot of work to address the failing systems that lead people to feel like picking up a firearm is their only option — whether they turn it on themselves or others. This work can often feel impossible, but it’s often as simple as picking up a hammer, or listening to a story.”