Volume No. 16 Issue No. 10 October 2019  



  Faces of Black Forest
  Turning weapons into weeders
  

     He had the idea for a year or two –- to turn guns into garden tools to provide a powerful symbol for change. It was an idea inspired by a biblical verse: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks."
   
   But it was the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 that led Mike Martin to transform that vision into reality. Twenty children were killed in that mass shooting –- the same number of students that his wife, then a first-grade teacher, had in her class.
   
   He went on to learn blacksmithing –- and to form RAWtools, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit aimed at addressing the epidemic of gun violence in this country. (Raw is war spelled backwards.) Martin's father, Fred, who also learned blacksmithing, is a founding board member of RAWtools and now leads the group's blacksmithing efforts.
   
   "We turn the guns into garden tools, but we also use that as a way to connect people to nonviolent resources for conflict mediation,” Mike Martin said. “That could be restorative justice, that could be de-escalation practices. It’s a variety of tools and resources."
   
   The first weapon Martin transformed was an AK-47 provided by a former public defender in Colorado Springs who no longer wanted the weapon, which he had bought for protection after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, RAWtools has rendered hundreds of guns into garden and other tools.
   
   At first, most of the guns were donated by individuals — often in the aftermath of a suicide. Today, a majority of the guns are obtained through police buyback programs and other larger events.
   
   RAWtools has established a satellite location, led by a Mennonite pastor, in Toledo, Ohio. Martin is also a Mennonite, and has a network of volunteer blacksmiths. RAWtools also has drawn the attention of major media outlets, including The New York Times, and he has inspired similar programs across the country.
   
   Martin is a former youth and young adult pastor at Beth-El Mennonite Church in Colorado Springs. His family is originally from Pennsylvania but moved to Black Forest when Martin was 10.
   
   "I loved it," he said. "We had 5 acres, so it's always fun to grow up in that kind of situation — outdoors and in the forest. Part of me as a kid didn't like being so far from friends, but now I long to have that kind of space again."
   
   A 2001 graduate of Lewis-Palmer High School, Martin also has a degree in biblical studies from Colorado Christian University. These days he lives in the Springs, as does his dad, who moved there two years ago after three decades in Black Forest. The two will return to the forest this month for a presentation at Black Forest Community Church.
   
   Martin is also co-author of "Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence" with best-selling author, speaker and activist Shane Claiborne; the two went on a national book tour this past spring. The book, written from a Christian perspective, looks at whether gun violence is a gun problem or a "heart problem." Their conclusion: It's both.
   
   For the most part, gun-rights activists have left him alone. "We're not an anti-gun organization," Martin said. "We're happy to have a dialogue." Some (RAWtools) board directors, he said, are gun owners. He said many gun owners "support some things like background checks. There’s more common ground than maybe what the national media or the stereotype have led us to believe."
   
   While it is mass shootings that create the most headlines –- and typically cause spikes in donated guns –- gun violence is an everyday occurrence, Martin said. "We lose almost 10 kids (on a daily basis) under the age of 17 to gun violence that doesn't involve mass shootings,” he said. “So, every other day equals another Sandy Hook."
   
   On the book tour and at other events, hearing the tear-drenched tales of those lost to gun violence can take a toll. "Every now and then, it can be overwhelming," Martin said. But at the same time, "It's more encouragement and motivation for us to keep doing this work. Victims and survivors carry too much of this load. Others of us can help carry that."
   
   (For more information on RAWtools, go to rawtools.org. On Oct. 20, RAWtools founder and executive director Mike Martin will preach during services at Black Forest Community Church while his father, Fred, demonstrates how they turn guns into garden tools. The service begins at 10 a.m. Following the worship, "Beating Guns," a documentary based on the book by Martin and Shane Claiborne, will be shown at the sanctuary.)
 
Mike Martin is founder and executive director of RAWtools, which preaches nonviolence and renders guns into garden tools. Photo by Bill Radford
 
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