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Presbyterian Peace Fellowship asks: How does your Guns to Gardens grow?

Third national gun safe surrender day calls congregations and communities to prevent gun violence

by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Volunteers check and dismantle guns during a Guns to Gardens event held in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship)

On a June Saturday in Concord, New Hampshire, a young couple with a baby in a car seat drove up to the Wesley United Methodist Church to safely surrender a handgun. Why? “New baby!”

To protect their child, they wanted to get the gun out of their house. During Gun Violence Awareness Month, they joined Americans across the United States in bringing unwanted firearms to a Guns to Gardens event on the third National Safe Surrender Days. Sponsored by the New Hampshire Council of Churches, it was the first Guns to Gardens event held in the Granite State.

Not all the stories were so positive. At Midvale Lutheran Community Church in Madison, Wisconsin, a woman turned in her father’s .357 Magnum handgun. It had been returned to her after he used it to take his own life. Church members stood by her quietly as she watched with deep emotion when the gun was dismantled on a chop saw. The pieces were given to a blacksmith to turn into a garden tool.

Preventing unintentional shootings, suicides, family gun violence and shootings related to gun theft — these are the goals of the Guns to Gardens movement, ridding homes and communities of unwanted guns, one gun at a time. Inspired by Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” churches and people of faith are growing this grassroots movement, which has stretched to about 35 states. With over 400 million firearms in the United States, they have a long way to go, and they know it.

The June 11 Guns to Gardens event in Louisville, Kentucky, gathered 25 volunteers, including blacksmith Craig Kaviar, sixth from left, and Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, in the second row center with his hands clasped. (Photo by Lavonne Fingerson)

From June 3-11, often in church parking lots, faith-based Guns to Gardens events were hosted in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Fremont, Ohio; Greensboro, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Salt Lake City, Utah; St. Louis, Missouri; two in Madison, Wisconsin; Oakland, California; Concord, New Hampshire; and Euclid, Ohio. Last month, churches sponsored events in Dallas, Texas; Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Tucson, Arizona; and Asheville, North Carolina. Altogether, they dismantled 450 firearms, including handguns, hunting rifles and semiautomatic assault-style rifles. Additional non-church events drew in even more weapons, such as the gun buyback sponsored on June 10 by the city of Houston, Texas, which collected 1,400 guns.

All of these events constituted the third national Safe Surrender Days. The prior national Safe Surrender Days were held in June 2022, after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and in December 2022 to remember 10 years since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. “We regularly offer this service to gun owners because no one wants a family tragedy. There are just too many of them,” said Nancy Halden of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, sharing a message that resounds across all the Guns to Gardens events. “You don’t want your grandkids to get hold of that gun. You don’t want someone who is going through a rough time to, in a rash moment, pick up that gun and take their own life. This is a way to just say, ‘I’m just going to make sure that it doesn’t cause any harm out there.'”

In St. Louis, a “Blessing of the Saw” liturgy on June 10 expanded Guns to Gardens into Missouri. The service was held in Tower Grove Park across the street from the Performing Arts High School, where a mass shooting last October killed two people and injured seven. (Photo by G2GSTL)

An additional event was scheduled in Tallahassee, Florida, at Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Though the local sheriff had agreed to assist with the event, another county official shut it down at the very last minute by claiming confusion over a local ordinance. Determined to proceed in some way, organizers greeted 13 cars that arrived at the cancelled event, bringing 24 guns including an assault rifle. In what organizer Emily Brno described as a “resurrection” of the event, they offered gun owners a form to schedule a time to dismantle their unwanted guns at a private event or at their own homes. Pledges were received for every gun to be dismantled. The sheriff came to lend encouragement that a solution will be found to proceed. With some fast and creative thinking, these volunteers brought Guns to Gardens into Florida for the first time.

One of the founders of the Guns to Gardens movement, the nonprofit 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. To mark 10 years of doing this work, RAWtools participated in the Safe Surrender Days through a 44K Guns to Gardens Marathon. For 44,000 minutes from May 31-June 30, blacksmiths in the RAWtools national network are forging gun parts into garden tools, art and jewelry. The 44,000 minutes represent each of the 44,000 lives lost to gun violence in 2022.

At its 18th Guns to Gardens event, New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence received significant numbers of semiautomatic assault rifles. (Photo by New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence)

For many gun owners, the appeal of Guns to Gardens is that their unwanted firearm will not be stolen or go back into the gun market where it could do harm. At the New Hampshire event, a U.S. Army marksman veteran turned in a semiautomatic assault rifle that he bought for target practice. “With everything that’s happening, I decided that I want to get rid of it. I’m glad it’s going to be used for something useful. My main thing is, it won’t harm any kids.”

In 2022, the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became the first major religious body to support Guns to Gardens as a way for congregations to take action to prevent gun violence. “In addition to legislation that can save lives,” said the Rev. Deanna Hollas, “Guns to Gardens is a form of direct action that churches and others can take on their own initiative. It’s something that we can do right now. I’m so proud of all the churches that are forging the way.”

As Coordinator of the Gun Violence Prevention Ministry of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Hollas has a front-row seat to witness the growth of the Guns to Gardens movement in congregations large and small. Her group has been invited to share the Guns to Gardens concept and offer a blacksmithing demonstration next month at the Wild Goose Festival in Union, North Carolina, a festival attended by about 5,000 church activists of many denominations. Additionally, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship offers regular on-line “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 Circles, which run for one hour per week on Thursdays from June 22-July 20 with a daytime or an evening option. Learn more and register here.

Deacon Clarence McDavid, whose Curé D’Ars Catholic Church hosted the Metro Denver Guns to Gardens event, summed it up: “Our church is concerned about the high level of gun violence in America and the harm that is being done. If you feel that it is no longer safe or desirable for you to have a gun in your home, this is a responsible way to dispose of unwanted guns.”

For more information on Guns to Gardens, go here, here or here.

Founded in 1944, 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.

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