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Three to four garden tools, like mattocks, spades, or other decorative metal pieces can be made from the steel and wooden stock of an average rifle or shotgun. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The line of cars snaked slowly through the parking lot of Most Precious Blood on a recent Saturday, a procession of those who had come to the Catholic church in south Denver not to rejoice but to release.

One by one, each car approached a small pop-up tent, where the drivers opened their trunks and volunteers reached inside to remove the castoff cargo — handguns, hunting rifles, shotguns and a couple of semi-automatic rifles.

This was the latest buyback event from a faith-based group called Guns to Gardens, part of a national movement of churches to tackle gun violence. The buybacks — or safe surrender events, as the group prefers to call them — accept unwanted firearms and destroy them. People donating the guns have the option to receive grocery gift cards in exchange, from $50 for a long rifle or shotgun all the way up to $250 for a semi-automatic rifle.

The guns are then disassembled and chopped up on-site and the leftover metal gun bits are later forged into garden tools by a Colorado Springs nonprofit called RAWtools, which was founded by a former Mennonite minister.

“The idea of turning swords into plowshares in the modern sense is the impetus behind this,” said Mike Martin, the founder of RAWtools.

Mike Martin, center, instructs volunteers of Guns to Gardens how to dismantle firearms on April 15, 2023, at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

From a public health perspective, the goal is to take guns that are no longer wanted out of homes and off the streets, before they end up being used in violence or for self-harm.

But, this being an event at a church organized by people of faith, many volunteering at the event also felt a religious calling. Martin’s words reference that — “swords into plowshares” is from a famous Bible verse. And that sense of calling highlights how some communities of faith have increasingly come to see stopping gun violence in the same way they see caring for the sick or clothing the less fortunate.

“We believe in a divine being who cares about our suffering and who calls us to be in the business of healing,” said Taylor Davenport-Hudson, one of the volunteers working at the Most Precious Blood event. “I think we should care about that.”

1,033 lives ended by a gunshot in 2022

By any measure, gun violence has reached historic levels in Colorado.

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Two years ago, in 2021, the state hit an at least 40-year high, both in terms of the number of people killed by gunshots and by the death rate. The number of gun homicides is increasing. The number of gun suicides is increasing.

Last year saw a bit of a reprieve from the long-term trend: The number of people killed by gunshot — which includes deaths by homicide, suicide, accident or undetermined intent — and the death rate both declined slightly. But still, 1,033 people died from gun violence, more than the number killed in car crashes or by an overdose of fentanyl.

Other concerning trends continued apace. In 2022, there were 20 children ages 5 through 14 who died from gun violence, five more than in 2021. Gun deaths among youth ages 15 through 18 increased, as well, to 53.

These trends are echoed nationally: 2021 saw a record 48,830 people killed by firearms in the United States. And they are of increasing concern to public health authorities. The American Medical Association in 2016 declared gun violence a public health crisis — more of an attention-directing move than one with official weight.

But, unlike a public health problem similar to, say, COVID-19, the issues surrounding gun violence are far more multifaceted, and the solutions are, too.

“Gun violence is a huge and complicated problem — what works for preventing suicide may not be what works for preventing youth violence,” said Dr. Emmy Betz, an emergency physician and professor at the University of Colorado and the director of the school’s Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative.

So Betz advocates for a wide variety of approaches, from a wide variety of people. That could mean working with gun stores to recognize signs of mental distress in customers hoping to purchase a weapon. That could mean educating health care workers on how to talk to patients about safe gun storage. Or that could mean gun buybacks, organized by trusted community leaders.

“Are gun buybacks in the U.S. going to fix the whole problem? Probably not, just because of the volume they can process and so forth,” Betz said. “But at the same time, I do think they are a piece of the puzzle.”

“A faith community needs to be a safe place to have a conversation.”

The Rev. Steve Poos-Benson didn’t know how his congregation would react when he decided to hold a gun buyback event at the church earlier this year.

The issue is so fraught — politically, culturally, even spiritually. Would anyone feel like he was trying to take people’s guns away? Would anyone be angry that he was inviting folks with shotguns, handguns and AR-15s onto church grounds?

But, for Poos-Benson, a church must be more than a place to connect with the almighty. It also must be a place to connect with community, regardless of differences of opinion.

“I’ve often felt that a faith community needs to be a safe place to have a conversation,” he said.

So he pitched the idea to his church council and then to the whole congregation.

“Everybody felt like, yeah, let’s do this,” he said.

Guns to Gardens aims to reduce gun violence by holding safe firearm surrender events, such as this one on April 15, 2023 at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Denver, where guns are disassembled on site and forged into gardening tools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Poos-Benson’s church, Columbine United Church, has a long history with gun violence — providing spiritual support in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting. That experience had made Poos-Benson more outspoken when it comes to the devastation that guns can cause. But Poos-Benson is also a gun owner; he enjoys hunting and target shooting.

Those two sides to his life, he said, allow him to walk a middle ground when it comes to talking to people about gun violence with church members. And it made a gun buyback a natural event for the church — a safe space where you can unburden yourself of your baggage.

“I don’t want people to have guns if they don’t want them, and I believe there should be a safe place for them to surrender their guns,” he said.

An assault-style weapon is dismantled by Guns to Gardens volunteers on April 15, 2023, in Denver. Audra of Littleton, CO, was 25 when she died in fall 2022 from gun violence. Audra was “adventuresome”, often finding joy in riding Motocross, snowboarding, skateboarding, powerlifting and more. (Taylor Davenport-Hudson, Contributed)

To his north, in Aurora, the Rev. Thomas Mayes also has long roots in working against gun violence. Mayes, the senior pastor at Living Water Christian Center Church, is president of Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, which has been active in addressing rising levels of violence among youth. He has also worked on several gun buybacks, including some last year in partnership with the Denver Broncos.

He said being a faith leader gives him a unique opportunity to speak to people at a time and place where they are inclined to listen.

“What can we say to them, when we have kids, parents and grandparents all in one place?” Mayes said, explaining how he crafts his message. “After we finish talking about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, how can we talk about what happens when they get home?”

Turning semi-automatics into mattocks

The chunk of steel comes out of the forge glowing orange-hot, set down onto the anvil in a dismembered, but unmistakable, shape: the barrel of a rifle.

Fred Martin raises a hammer above his head and whallops it down, striking the metal with clanging force. Flakes of steel slough off, and the barrel begins to mutate. Again and again he does this. Forge. Anvil. Hammer. Forge. Anvil. Hammer. Until the gun barrel has been reborn into something new: the head of a garden tool.

Martin, the father of RAWtools founder Mike Martin, is a largely self-taught blacksmith, as are most of those doing the work of turning gun parts into something else. And it’s not exactly easy work.

A single rifle barrel will yield enough steel to make three or four mattocks, a tool used for breaking up dirt. (“We turn semi-automatics into mattocks,” Mike Martin likes to say.) A shotgun barrel produces three heads for small hand spades — and the stock can be used to make the handle. It takes a couple of hours to make each tool.

Fred Martin works on a steel mattock, made from the metal of donated guns May 17, 2023, in Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The buyback at Most Precious Blood Catholic church yielded 57 guns, including three semi-automatic rifles. That’s a lot of hammering to do.

Just to hold the buyback required some logistics gymnastics. Church leaders must give the go-ahead, but there are also safety and insurance concerns to consider.

People surrendering firearms were led through a carefully controlled process — first the dropoff, where names are not taken but serial numbers for the firearms are recorded to be passed on to law enforcement. Then people must follow to the next station, where they watch from their cars as volunteers use chop saws and grinders to dismantle their guns. (If people were to just drop their guns and leave, it would be considered an illegal transfer of a firearm.)

Organizers are careful to respect the privacy of those dropping off guns. The Colorado Sun was not permitted to take photographs while the event was taking place, nor to talk to people who were there to surrender their firearms. Law enforcement was also not allowed to be on-site. Martin said all of this is to ensure that people aren’t scared away from bringing their unwanted guns to the event — no questions asked.

Most commonly, he said people surrender guns because they no longer need them and don’t like the idea of them sitting around the house, where they could be stolen or used by someone else in the family to harm themselves or others. Some drop off guns they have inherited after the death of a relative. A few have personal trauma connected to the guns they are getting rid of — and for that reason the event at Most Precious Blood had a “park ‘n’ pray” station where people could sit with a minister.

“Most people recognize that we’ve crossed a line and we need to do something to remedy that,” Martin said. “This is one of those options.”

Jerry Martin fits a pieces of a mattock together May 17, 2023, in Colorado Springs. Martin and other volunteers of Rawtools weld garden tools out of donated guns from safe firearm surrender events. Up to 3-4 garden tools, like mattocks, spades, or other decorative pieces can be made from the steel and wooden stock of an average rifle. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But, as Martin indicates, there is also a humility in the events. One volunteer working in Fred Martin’s shop likened blacksmithing to therapy, a way for him to feel he is doing something spiritually worthwhile, even if that something is just swinging a hammer.

“It’s something I can do,” said Jerry Martin, no relation to Fred or Mike. “And it may not make a whole heck of a lot of difference. But it’s good for me.”

For Fred Martin, though, there is something of a metaphor in the sweaty work. A reminder of how things can get bent and brought back in line if you just apply enough heat and will. A reminder that change is always possible no matter the problem.

“The nice thing about this,” he said as he raised his hammer to strike another blow, “is there’s some grace in it. If it gets out of shape, you can bring it back.”

The next Guns to Gardens gun buyback will be held from 10 a.m. to noon June 10 at Curé d’Ars Catholic Church, 3201 Dahlia St. in Denver.

Fred Martin works on a steel mattock, made from the metal of donated guns May 17, 2023, in Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage.

Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Rocky Mountain News, among other publications. He also interned one summer in the public relations office at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where he got to sit on an elephant's knee and get his photo taken.

John was part of The Denver Post's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news team for its coverage of a shooting at an Aurora movie theater, and, in 2015, he was a Pulitzer finalist for a series he wrote on parents whose children suffer from a rare form of epilepsy and the help they hoped to find through Colorado's medical marijuana system.

Email: johningold@coloradosun.com Twitter: @johningold