Inmates Beat Guns Into Plowshares

THOMAS BREEN
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 20, 2018

 Inmates hammer a new split fork into old, repurposed gun parts.

Inmates hammer a new split fork into old, repurposed gun parts.

Four New Haven Correctional Center inmates literally beat “swords into ploughshares” on Thursday as they forged new garden tools from donated and repurposed handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles.

Outside of the New Haven police headquarters at 1 Union Ave., the four current New Haven inmates worked with blacksmiths from the Colorado Springs-based RAWtools, Inc. to forge two-sided mattocks out of former handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles acquired by the city’s police department through its annual gun buyback program.

The mattocks, which are foot-long garden tools with a hoe on one side and a two-pronged fork on the other, will ultimately be donated to gardening programs at local high schools like Common Ground, Hillhouse High, and Wilbur Cross High, as well as to the New Haven Land Trust, which runs over 50 community gardens throughout the city.

 Retired Bishop Jim Curry with the two-sided mattock made of old gun parts at Thursday morning’s presser.

Retired Bishop Jim Curry with the two-sided mattock made of old gun parts at Thursday morning’s presser.

“Today we raise up the symbol that we don’t have to be tied to instruments of death,” said Jim Curry, a New Haven resident and the recently retired former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. “We can be tied instruments of life and growing and partnership.”

He quoted the passage from the Book of Isaiah that provided the spiritual inspiration for the enterprise: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

 The crowd at Thursday’s presser.

The crowd at Thursday’s presser.

Thursday morning’s press conference marked the second key stage in this year’s “Swords into Plowshares” initiative, a collaboration between Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), the New Haven Police Department, the gun control advocacy group the Newtown Foundation, the anti-violence metalworking organization RAWtools, Inc., and a variety of local religious and community farming partners to convert a trove of former weapons into viable garden tools.

The first stage took place earlier this week at local sculptor Gar Waterman’s studio in Westville, where Waterman, two Episcopal bishops, and one Episcopal priest used power saws to decommission and dismantle 141 guns. Read more about Monday morning’s gun deconstruction below.

On Thursday, the four volunteer inmates at the city’s correctional center continued a weeks along process (begun on Wednesday) to use forges, anvils, hammers, and splitters to convert the deconstructed gun barrels into between 150 and 200 mattocks.

Each year since 2011, city police have worked with YNHH to invite people to trade in unloaded firearms and ammunition in exchange for retail gift cards ranging from $25 to $200 in value.

 Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Pina Violano.

Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Pina Violano.

Pina Violano, the manager for injury prevention, community outreach, and research at YNHH, said the local police department received 141 gun donations during a December 2017 buyback. She said the department received an additional 48 guns during a subsequent buyback held in June.

Over the past seven years, she said, the buyback program has taken nearly 800 guns off of New Haven’s streets.

But the handguns, rifles, and assault weapons acquired this past December and June are not simply going to be destroyed by the police, as evidenced by Thursday’s morning’s workshop outside of the police headquarters.

This year, the city and the hospital partnered with the Newtown Foundation, Waterman, the state Episcopal Church, the state Department of Correction, and the Colorado Spring-based RAWtools Inc. to convert these decommissioned weapons into garden tools.

 Forging garden tools out of old gun parts outside of 1 Union Ave.

Forging garden tools out of old gun parts outside of 1 Union Ave.

On Thursday morning, the four New Haven inmates, wearing thick leather gloves, short-sleeved white T-shirts and baggy khaki pants, worked in pairs of two as they inserted six-inch former gun barrels into a red-hot forge, laid the glowing metal on an anvil perched atop a tree stump, and then hammered and split the former weapons into the mattocks’ two-sided hoes and forks.

 RAWtools director Mike Martin.

RAWtools director Mike Martin.

“The process of turning guns into garden tools says it’s a gun problem and a heart problem,” said Mike Martin, the executive director of RAW tools. “And we need to talk about both at the same time. It’s not an either or. You’re going to have to make progress in both places.”

He said that he co-founded RAWtools just a few weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 as a means of taking one of the greatest social and public health threats of our time, gun violence, and turning its weapons into tools for growing food, developing practical agricultural skills, and fostering community growth.

He said that he comes from a Mennonite and Baptist religious tradition, and that he sees converting guns into garden tools as his form of conscientious objection to gun violence.

“The symbolism of this is incredible,” said New Haven Land Trust Executive Director Justin Elicker, noting that gun manufacture was a key mid-20th century industry in New Haven through companies like Winchester Repeating Arms. When that industry left town, he said, many in the city’s surrounding neighborhoods struggled with resulting poverty, which in turn spurred on crime and gun violence, which, through Thursday morning’s forging process, is now literally being turned back into tools of social productivity in the form of garden tools.

Martin said that the process of forging the 150 to 200 mattock metal pieces will take several weeks to complete. The forged metal will then be shipped back to Colorado Springs, where RAWtools employees will custom shave individual wooden handles for each piece before bringing them back to the Elm City for distribution to local community gardens and high schools next spring.

 The Newtown Foundation’s Steve Yanovsky.

The Newtown Foundation’s Steve Yanovsky.

By the end of this process, said Steve Yanovsky, a board member and the guiding force behind New Haven’s guns-into-garden-tools initiative, “We will have literally taken a weapon of death and turned it into an instrument of life.”

An Artist, 3 Priests, 4 Buzzsaws, And 141 Guns

 Local sculptor Gar Waterman tears into a donated gun in the garden behind his Westville studio on Monday morning.

Local sculptor Gar Waterman tears into a donated gun in the garden behind his Westville studio on Monday morning.

The process began Monday in the 425 West Rock Ave. studio of Westville sculptor Gar Waterman, as he carried an assault rifle into the shaded garden.

“Ah, a cheap Chinese AK,” he said with a sigh. “Terrific.”

With construction ear muffs wrapped around his head, Waterman plugged in a power saw, clamped the gun into a metal vise atop a plain wooden table, and started to break the weapon in two.

To his left and right, a local Episcopal priest and two Episcopalian bishops did the same.

 Sawing apart donated weapons.

Sawing apart donated weapons.

The local sculptor joined Connecticut Episcopal Bishop Ian Douglas, Bishop Curry, and Hamden priest Bob Bergner for the gun deconstruction phase of the city’s new guns-into-garden-tools initiative, whereby former lethal weapons are converted into gardening tools.

But before the gun parts can be turned into gardening tools, the guns first had to be broken apart. That’s where Monday’s exercise fit in, with Waterman and the Episcopal clergymen taking the donated, unloaded weapons from the back of a New Haven police van, clamping them into one of five different workstations behind Waterman’s studio, and sawing them into pieces.

 Waterman (center) with local Episcopal clergymen Ian Douglas, Bob Bergner, and Jim Curry.

Waterman (center) with local Episcopal clergymen Ian Douglas, Bob Bergner, and Jim Curry.

“We as citizens need to take action because of the great inaction in Washington D.C.,” said Yanovsky.

Yanovsky said the idea for New Haven’s Swords into Plowshares initiative dates back to late 2016, when Rev. Jeremy Lucas in Lake Oswego, Oregon,  won an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a community raffle. Lucas incurred the wrath of local gun advocates when he announced that he planned to destroy the weapon as peace gesture.

Yanovsky said that the Newtown Foundation vociferously supported Lucas during the ordeal. After Lucas destroyed the weapon and had it converted into a garden tool, he donated the gun-turned-hoe to the chair of the Newtown Foundation. Ever since, Yanovsky said, the foundation has been looking to do something similar closer to home in Connecticut.

He said that the foundation found eager partners in the New Haven Police Department and YNHH. If this Elm City initiative is successful, he said, he plans on taking the idea to different police departments throughout the state and elsewhere in New England.

 The Newtown Foundation’s Steve Yanovsky.

The Newtown Foundation’s Steve Yanovsky.

“This is a symbolic statement,” recently retired state Episcopal Bishop Jim Curry said as he leaned a buzzsaw into a shotgun’s metallic receiver. “We don’t have to live in a gun culture. We can transform ourselves and we can transform the guns.”

As a rainbow of sparks flew where the buzzsaw met with the gun’s mechanical epicenter, Curry said that this initiative is not about the Second Amendment. It instead is about using guns voluntarily handed in by residents to the police to advocate for a safer present and future with the collaboration of law enforcement, clergy, medical professionals, artists, and other members of the community.

 Waterman with Bergner.

Waterman with Bergner.

“There’s no reason not to do this,” Waterman said when asked why he wanted to participate in this initiative. “The whole gun thing is just instance.”

He said that if this project means fewer guns on the street and fewer people in New Haven vulnerable to getting shot, then he is in full support.