By Thomas Peipert, The Associated Press
Nearly three decades after her 3-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting that shattered the silence outside a Denver duplex, Sharletta Evans was the one piercing the stillness as she eased some of her pain by hammering the melted barrel of a rifle into a garden tool.
The event held at a Denver church was part of a program run by the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit RAWtools, which draws inspiration from the Bible verse “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
“To see one more gun off the street is so comforting. I love the idea of something that could potentially cause harm being turned into a garden tool that’s going to be something used for productivity,” Evans said while holding a photo of her son Casson, who was killed just before Christmas in 1995.
RAWtools has disabled more than 1,000 firearms across the country since its inception in 2013, shortly after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Many of the resulting garden tools are donated to participating churches or sold on the RAWtools website.
The group’s executive director, Mike Martin, said 1,000 disabled firearms “feels small” considering the nearly 400 million guns in the U.S., but it’s a start.
“It’s a little bit by a little bit. We affect change by making change in our own lives and compelling others to do the same,” he said, noting that RAWtools also partners with groups that focus on rehabilitating offenders and reconciling them with their victims.
The organization’s ultimate goal, he said, is to offer “a space for people to transform their trauma from something that brings death to their life to something that brings life.”
At another recent event at a church in the nearby city of Aurora, which has seen an alarming surge in gun violence, the group held an anonymous gun buyback and disabled 75 firearms, 50 of which were semi-automatic. RAWtools pays $100 for standard rifles, $200 for handguns and semi-automatic firearms and $300 for AR-style rifles.
Chris Silkwood of Denver donated his semi-automatic rifle plus $500 to RAWtools after his wife read about the organization and said she wanted him to dispose of the gun for her birthday.
Silkwood used to work in Iraq and Afghanistan for a construction company that contracted with the U.S. military and bought the rifle and a handgun after the military required the company’s employees to be armed.
About a year after he stopped working in the Middle East, Silkwood said the shooting at Sandy Hook made him think about his own young daughter — just starting school at the time — and why anyone should own a rifle like his and the one used in the massacre.
“I couldn’t think of a good reason,” said Silkwood. “It’s designed for one purpose only and that’s to kill people, and usually a lot of people.”
Silkwood, who said he isn’t opposed to all guns, didn’t want to sell the rifle out of fear that it would end up in the wrong hands so it sat unused for about a decade until, with the help of RAWtools, he turned it into his wife’s birthday gift.
He said he felt both relief and pride at the garden tool he created.
“The sense of relief came from the fact that that gun was gone now and was never going to be used for anything except essentially for gardening,” he said.
For Evans, the mission of RAWtools meshes with her own, which includes speaking publicly about her road to forgiving — and even advocating for — her son’s killers.
She said that path began the same night her son died in her arms, when she said she felt a presence and heard a voice asking if she would forgive the killers. She immediately agreed.
Evans, who went on to form a gang prevention organization and now runs the Colorado Crime Survivors Network, took the opportunity in 2012 to meet face-to-face for eight hours with one of the shooters, Raymond Johnson, who was serving his time in a Colorado prison. From that point on, she said, she accepted Johnson as her son and started advocating for his release.
Johnson, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, completed a re-entry program for juveniles convicted as adults and walked out of prison a free man last November. Evans said the other shooter, Paul Littlejohn, is expected to be released soon.
For Evans, healing has come in many forms — through her spirituality, forgiveness and advocacy work. But she said she finds the most peace in telling Casson’s story.
“As long as I continue to reach out to other people, I keep Casson alive,” she said. “And that’s my goal. As long as I live, I’m going to keep Casson alive with me by sharing my story of forgiveness and how God is able to heal you.”