Volunteers transform donated firearms into garden tools at an event in Denver in April 2023. Courtesy of Guns To Gardens Metro Denver

Even the bloodless, dry statistics are chilling: Americans owned 393 million firearms in 2017 that were held in 81.4 million hands, says American Gun Facts.com, an aggregator of firearm statistics. Those weapons are in 46% of households, and were used in 20,958 murders in 2021, plus 26,328 suicides.

But sometimes those weapons are no longer wanted. The owner might be concerned about children finding the gun. A person no longer hunts. Someone feels they can’t handle a gun safely anymore. A spouse doesn’t want guns in the house after the collector’s death.

What to do? Keep the unwanted gun anyway? Sell it on the open market where it might be used to kill someone?

That’s where the Boulder Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is stepping in on Saturday, Oct. 14, with a “safe surrender” Guns to Gardens event in the Lafayette congregation’s parking lot, 1241 Ceres Drive. The event, which aims to collect about 50 guns, runs from noon to 2 p.m. 

BVUUF is partnering with RAWtools, a nonprofit Colorado Springs organization that has assembled a network of about two dozen volunteer blacksmiths and artists across the country, who forge disabled guns into garden tools, such as mattocks and trowels, jewelry and artwork that RAWtools later sells through its website.

“Anyone may bring unwanted and unloaded guns to be dismantled and later made into garden tools,” said the Rev. Lydia Ferrante-Roseberry, the church’s senior minister. “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 it.”

Volunteers will collect the weapon from the car trunk and cut it apart with a power saw, following federal guidelines, while the donor watches from their car. 

“We cut through the weapon’s moving parts so a firearm can’t function or be put back together,” said Mike Martin, executive director of RAWtools.

Because the donor witnesses the process, ownership legally doesn’t change hands so no paperwork is needed, but at the end, the weapon is mere parts, and no longer legally a gun, according to Guns to Gardens.

The gun parts are trucked to RAWtools headquarters, disassembled further to separate metal and wood, then distributed to its blacksmiths and artists. “We try to save and use all parts,” Martin said.

Blacksmiths heat the metal on a forge to about 2,000 degrees to make it malleable, then use blacksmithing tools to transform the parts to their new purpose.

A shogun barrel might see new life as several trowels, while the wooden butt of a gun becomes a handle. Parts too small to become tools find new uses in jewelry.

Martin estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 weapons have been taken out of usage during RAWtools 10-year history. The resulting garden tools and jewelry are released in batches for sale four to six times a year, when there are enough, he said.

Garden tools made from guns. Courtesy of RAWTools

At the event itself, donors will receive King Soopers grocery store gift cards in appreciation — $50 for a long gun or shotgun, $150 for a handgun or semiautomatic, or $250 for an assault weapon, while certificates last. Trigger locks will also be given out for any other guns a person still has.

Guns will be accepted anonymously, although serial numbers will be given to police to check whether destroyed weapons were lost, stolen or used in a crime, said Taylor Davenport-Hudson, a Guns to Gardens volunteer.

Responding to concerns that a criminal could donate a gun to dispose of evidence, Davenport-Hudson remarked that “a dismantled gun, no matter how used, is better than a weapon.”

Many donors actually appreciate the anonymity, she said. For example, someone struggling with suicidal thoughts might want temptation removed, but not be ready to tell others. Or “in your social circle it might not be cool to give up a gun,” she said. Others may be fearful of criticism in today’s highly charged political environment.

“By keeping it anonymous, we can make the event as welcoming as possible for people,” she said. 

Lafayette’s event is part of a national Guns to Gardens movement. It’s the fifth such event in the Denver area, and the second in Boulder County.

Any kind of firearm will be accepted, even non-working weapons and homemade guns, she said, although grocery certificates won’t be given for them. Ammunition will not be accepted.

Davenport-Hudson emphasized that the event respects the Second Amendment, remarking that Guns to Gardens seeks only “unwanted weapons.”

That’s exactly why church member Don Engelstad is donating his 50-year-old single-gauge shotgun, which he used for hunting only one summer during college. ”It has sat in a closet ever since, and I don’t want to use it,” said Engelstad, a retired chemical engineer who lives in Broomfield.

Even more motivation came from his son, who asked him to get rid of the shotgun because his son’s wife would be “very unlikely” to let their small children visit their grandfather with a weapon in the house.

“I’m glad to get rid of my shotgun,” Engelstad said, “This is a convenient way. Plus, this isn’t going to change the gun violence scene, but it makes a bit of a statement.”

The church estimates the event will cost about $10,000, raised through donations. Most goes to gun donors for grocery gift cards, which event organizers purchased at full price, but $2,200 is budgeted for RAWtools’ liability insurance and usage of its saws and other equipment.

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.

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