Gun violence prevention is the pressing goal around the country
by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Winter is no match for Americans who are weary of gun violence and who are determined to do something about it. From Dec. 3-10, from a frigid church parking lot in Cambridge, Wisconsin to a rainy day in Decatur, Georgia, church members and others fired up their chop saws to join the Guns to Gardens movement. Their goal? Transforming unwanted guns into garden tools.
As the nation this week remembers 10 years since the Sandy Hook school shooting, many Americans can trace their resolve to prevent gun violence to that horrible day. From education to legislative advocacy to projects like Guns to Gardens, churches in particular are taking a lead to save lives.
“It was so good to feel that we could do something,” said Presbyterian Soni Castleberry, one of the leaders of the Guns to Gardens Safe Surrender event at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky on Dec. 4. “In our city, there has been a murder almost every day in the last month. Guns to Gardens is something we can do to make a difference.” The Louisville event united many congregations: Baptists, AME, UCC, Presbyterian, the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky — and a Jewish blacksmith who will turn the dismantled gun parts into garden tools and jewelry.
Guns to Gardens is a growing national movement, now reaching to 30 states. In the face of more than 47,000 gun deaths last year, Guns to Gardens is a form of voluntary direct action that American citizens are taking to help prevent gun violence and to encourage elected officials and others to do even more.
Safe Surrender events were held in early December in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Sandy, Utah; Cambridge, Wisconsin; Decatur, Georgia; New Haven, Connecticut; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Louisville. Additionally, the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Metropolitan Ministry held its first Guns to Gardens event on Nov. 12 and the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio offered an art show of works created by blacksmiths with gun parts from the first nationwide Guns to Gardens day on June 11.
Altogether at the recent events, 542 unwanted firearms were collected to be dismantled and transformed, as the New Haven event organizers described it, “from taking life to making life.” A significant number of the guns were assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. The December events are part of a nationwide memorial for the Sandy Hook school shooting which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, 10 years ago this month, killing 20 second graders and six school staff.
With well over 400 million firearms in private hands in the United States, many of these weapons are no longer wanted. However, they still pose a risk of being stolen or used in a moment of crisis or an unintentional shooting. Guns to Gardens provides a safe, anonymous way for individuals to responsibly dispose of unwanted guns without returning them to the gun market where they could do harm.
Gratitude for this service is often the primary response of gun owners. As Mary Smarr, one of the leaders of the Dec. 3 event at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, put it, “It was a good day. People were just so relieved to get rid of these guns.”
In Albuquerque, Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said after the Dec. 10 event, “The majority of people are turning in guns for safety reasons. They don’t feel safe with a gun in the home.” She described gun owners who brought firearms to the event because they have a family member who should not be near a gun. Sometimes it was grandparents, often former hunters or gun collectors, who do not want their grandchildren around guns. Another frequent reason, Viscoli reported, was older women who are caring for husbands with dementia and realize that it is no longer safe for them to have a gun in the home. There are many reasons to safely surrender a gun, from unwanted inherited guns to suicide prevention to family violence.
At the New Haven event, which was co-sponsored by the New Haven Police Department and the non-profit group Swords to Plowshares Northeast, organizer Pina Violana said that about 10% of the people who turned in guns had used that gun to try to kill themselves. Suicide prevention, including suicide among veterans, is one of the top goals of the Guns to Gardens movement. Suicides account for about 60% of gun deaths each year.
In Shepherdstown, West Virginia, members of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church included elements of worship before and after the dismantling of guns. The women’s choir sang. Participants shared their reasons for attending, including a local elementary school principal who expressed the desperate situation created in schools by active shooter training drills. The chop saw operator was a gun enthusiast since childhood who appreciated the importance of removing unwanted guns from unsafe conditions.
Among the leaders of the Guns to Gardens movement, the non-profit organization RAWtools in Colorado helps volunteers learn how to safely and legally dismantle guns by using rules from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A growing network of blacksmiths works to turn the leftover parts into garden tools, art and jewelry. In 2022, RAWtools assisted in eight Guns to Gardens events sponsored by the Denver Broncos football team and the cities of Denver and Aurora, with the first one held at Empower Field at Mike High.
While some larger events, especially those sponsored by local governments or police departments, are referred to as gun “Buy Backs,” for Guns to Gardens events at congregations there is no purchase or transfer of ownership of the weapons. The gun owner remains present during the dismantling process and may donate the leftover parts, no longer legally a gun. The optional gift cards thank gun owners and provide an incentive for safe surrender. Several of the December events also offered free gun locks for those who wanted a way to safely secure their firearms.
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship offers regular online “Action Circles” for church members to share best practices for safe chop saw procedures, publicity, pastoral care, gift card options and planning for a Guns to Gardens event. Registration is now open for the next Action Circle, which runs on Thursdays from Jan. 5 through Feb. 2 for one hour per week. Learn more here.
“Our nation is traumatized by gun violence,” says the Rev. Deanna Hollas, the PPF’s Coordinator of the Gun Violence Prevention Ministry. “The church has a calling to help heal the nation. That is what Guns to Gardens is all about — transforming guns into tools for life and also transforming ourselves, seeking healing and hope.” Hollas is encouraged by the action of the 225th General Assembly (2022) when it voted to become the first denomination to support the Guns to Gardens movement.
The next nationwide Guns to Gardens Safe Surrender Day will be in mid-June 2023, though many congregations and communities will hold events during the season of Lent and throughout the year. To learn more about gun violence prevention and the Guns to Gardens Action Circle January 5-February 2, go here.
Founded in 1944, the Presbyterian Peace fellowship is an independent nationwide community of Presbyterians who follow the example of the nonviolent Christ to find alternatives to violence, war and exploitation. For more information, go here or here or here.
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