Colorado Springs nonprofit RAWtools features art made from guns in new exhibit | Arts & Entertainment


The guns hanging on these gallery walls no longer pose a threat to any sentient creature.

The hunting rifles, handguns, assault-style weapons and soft gun cases are now the stuff of dreamcatchers, sculptures, musical instruments and other works of art. They were surrendered to the nonprofit RAWtools for a variety of reasons — the owners had young children at home; the firearm was inherited and the new owner didn’t have a way to store it safely or didn’t feel comfortable reselling it; or the owner lost someone to suicide by that particular firearm.

“They almost always sum it up as I don’t want it anymore,” said RAWtools Executive Director Mike Martin. “There are all these layers and they don’t want to contribute to the gun violence in America.”

Martin founded RAWtools in 2012 as a way to move communities from gun violence. The organization holds Gun Buybacks/Safe Surrender events around the country throughout the year and also trains or partners with other groups to teach alternative conflict resolution skills, including restorative justice, dialogue facilitation and bystander intervention.


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Each surrendered gun the Colorado Springs organization receives, either at an event or through its website, is cut and destroyed according to guidelines from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It can then be forged into garden tools, jewelry and other works of art by volunteer artists and blacksmiths at RAWtools branches across the country.

“If a donor brings us a firearm, no matter how much it’s worth, if they ask us to cut it up we do that,” Martin said. “The idea is to exchange tools of violence for tools of creation.”

The RAWtools exhibit “Another Way is Possible” features work by local, regional and national RAWtools blacksmiths and other artists, and is up through Jan. 28 at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. It will be open from 5-8 p.m. during First Friday in January.

Many of the show’s works were created during June, which is National Gun Violence Awareness Month. All the RAWtools blacksmiths across the country collectively forged one minute for every life lost to gun violence in 2022, which was more than 44,000 minutes. Other pieces in the exhibit were commissioned or made during the last decade.

Springs artist Bryan Miller is the sculptor behind one of the show’s most impressive works, “Hawks Can Become Doves,” a large hawk with spread-eagled wings made from more than 50 guns. His second piece in the show features a small dove made from the parts of six to seven guns.


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“I want to bring life into something that’s cold and harmful and get people to look at it from a different perspective,” Miller said. “I value when people enjoy the sculpture first and then realize it’s transformed from recycled or upcycled items. Changing weapons into something that represents peace or a new way of looking at how we deal with each other was important.”

Martin, a former Mennonite youth pastor at Beth-El Mennonite Church, always liked the idea of turning swords to plowshares (the main cutting blade of a plow), and what that might look like in a modern context. He was finally galvanized into creating the nonprofit after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults in Newton, Conn.

It was also the year he met Sharletta Evans, a Denver resident who lost her 3-year-old son to gun violence in the late ’90s. She was speaking at a summit on restorative justice, a system of criminal justice that focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community. Evans was the first person to go through victim-offender high impact dialogue in Colorado, which helped her forgive the teen who killed her child.

“It’s (RAWtools) challenging the Second Amendment and those gun owners to be responsible, and it’s really inspiring, giving them an outlet and education regarding guns and their purpose,” Evans said. “The U.S. is a violent culture right now. These are the things that change the narrative for the moment. You can rethink that instead of violence something more positive can come out of the material.”

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To surrender a firearm for free, people can go online to rawtools.org and begin the process or attend a Buyback/Safe Surrender event, where attendees can receive gift cards in exchange for guns. There will be a Springs event in the next year.

Choosing to donate online will begin the operation of finding a volunteer to meet up with the gun owner, often in a church parking lot or some other public space, where they can plug in a saw and cut up the gun, the same way they do at events.

If it’s a Springs gun owner, they can choose to meet at the RAWtools shop to destroy the gun. For those uncomfortable transporting a firearm, a volunteer can come to their house and cut it — a five- to 10-minute process.

Gun owners can even be part of the destruction process.

“We often have survivors — people who have lost loved ones in mass shootings — show up so they can run a saw for a few minutes at one of our events. It’s a healing moment for them,” said Martin, who co-wrote the 2019 book “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.” “It helps them process what happened to their loved one or feel like they’re physically doing something to make a difference.”

Right now there’s a two- to three- month wait if a gun owner wants their firearm made into a garden tool. It’s also possible to donate the firearm and spend a few hours in the blacksmithing shop creating a tool or piece of simple jewelry.

In the past three years, Martin estimates they’ve received almost 2,000 guns, and 5,000 to 6,000 guns altogether since the nonprofit’s inception. Every year since 2021, they’ve doubled the previous year’s gun donations.


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“It’s not just a transaction of give me your gun and you getting a garden tool back,” he said. “It’s about doing it from a trauma-informed space, and recognizing the pain these things can bring to our community and weighing is it worth me having this locked up and not likely using it versus there are 45,000 people dying (from gun-related injuries) every year.”

It’s hard to know how many guns are sold in Colorado, as the state has no gun registry. Gun sales are commonly tracked across the country by noting the number of background checks that are approved, which usually correlates to how many firearms are bought. However, someone can buy multiple firearms with one background check.

Martin cites a 2017 study that reported Teller, El Paso and Douglas counties are some of the highest gun-owning populations in the country per capita. Teller County ranked seventh, El Paso was 10th for cities of 500,000 or more, and Douglas County was in the 70th percentile.

But when Martin stands and looks around the exhibit, he feels encouraged.

“The whole idea of gun violence is heavy, but when I’m in this room I’m given lot of hope because a lot of people are carrying that weight.”

Contact the writer: 636-0270



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