Feature photo: Keith Curl-Dove turns swords into ploughshares, figuratively speaking. (photos by Juliet Coen)

Keith Curl-Dove is tired of thoughts and prayers.

As the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church and New Creation Community Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, thinking and praying are part of his job, but after multiple mass shootings that took place this year, he saw the need to do more.

“In our Wednesday book study for New Creation, it was the day after the Uvalde shooting, and of course, we didn’t talk about the book at all,” Curl-Dove says. “We processed the shooting at Robb Elementary School and I know about this group called RAWtools, and I had been active in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship for a while, under which the minister for gun violence prevention works. So I knew what they were doing with gun violence prevention.”

In 2012, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting that claimed the lives of 26 people — 20 of them children between 6-7 years old —  father-and-son duo Fred and Mike Martin founded RAWtools, an organization that turns guns into garden tools. Since the founding of the organization, more than 1,000 firearms have been transformed through their Swords to Plowshares initiative with the help of partner organizations around the country that act as disarming centers where people can turn in their guns.

“When we were processing the shooting, we talked about how we were tired of wringing our hands after every instance of gun violence, tired of waiting on the people who actually get to make decisions to finally do something about it,” Curl-Dove says. “And I brought up this group and there was a lot of energy around chopping up guns with our hands rather than just wringing them every time.”

Congregants stand and sing during a sermon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Greensboro NC, on July 17, 2022.

Because New Creation doesn’t have a physical location, Curl-Dove asked leadership at the other church he works for, Faith Presbyterian, if they’d be open to collaborating and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Now, close to two months later, Faith Presbyterian Church is one of RAWtools’ newest disarming centers. According to the map on RAWtools’ website, Faith Presbyterian will be the fourth spot in North Carolina — others are in the Triangle, Asheville and Winston-Salem. And like Faith Presbyterian, many locations that are part of RAWtools’ network are faith-based. The organization partnered with Mennonite Church USA to further their mission. And it’s not all that surprising, Curl-Dove says, given that the idea comes straight from scripture.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” Curl-Dove reads from Isaiah 2:4. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; and neither shall they learn war anymore.”

How does the process work?

In the corner near the entrance of Curl-Dove’s office, a bright-yellow metal chopsaw sits on the floor. In the future, the saw will be used to cut up guns brought to the church.

The process for disarming and transforming guns is fairly straightforward: Anyone looking to participate can find the closest disarming site through the RAWtools website and then submit a request to drop off a gun. Then they bring their gun to the location where it will be chopped up and sent to a blacksmith who will turn it into a garden tool, which the owner can get in return for free. Ones that don’t get returned to the owners get sold through RAWtools to help fund their mission.

As part of the process of joining the network, Curl-Dove will be training with Russ May, the co-founder of Anthony’s Plot Community in Winston-Salem, to make sure he knows exactly how to chop the guns. Antony’s Plot, which was founded in 2010, is a faith-based intentional neighborhood in the Sunnyside district. According to May, the community has been impacted by gun violence in the past.

“There’s gun violence that passes through here,” he says. “Gun violence has impacted a sense of safety, especially for our children and youth here.”

In 2018, May was pushed to become a part of the disarming network after a family tragedy brought the issue close to home.

“In 2016, my wife’s mother was shot and killed. And her husband, who killed her, also killed himself,” May says. “That fall, the founder of RAWtools, Michael Martin, was in town doing an event raising awareness about gun violence, and they asked me to speak. We had just had this loss in our family and we didn’t know how to process it, but our tendency was to ask, ‘How do we make an impact here?’ That’s when we started disarming guns.”

The very first gun that May disarmed was an AR-15 that belonged to his father-in-law. Eventually, they disarmed all of his weapons. Since their start four years ago, May says that he’s cut up about 20 guns — most of them using the saw that lives in the Sunnyside neighborhood parking lot.

“I want it to be visible so neighbors know what we’re doing,” he says.

While the neighborhood is being impacted by gentrification, May says that the area is still racially and socioeconomically diverse. He says that when the community was first founded, it was about equal parts Latinx, Black and white and had a 50-50 split of people living both above and below the poverty line.

“We still have a diverse set of relationships,” May says.

What’s the impact?

White-led religious organizations like Anthony’s Plot as well as Faith Presbyterian and New Light Community are increasingly becoming involved in the fight against gun violence.

“Everything is intersectional,” Curl-Dove says. “Working against gun violence is also working against racism. Gun violence disproportionately affects Black people and communities of color.”

According to CDC data from 2020 analyzed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, young Black males accounted for about 38 percent of all gun homicide deaths in 2020, despite only making up 2 percent of the total US population. Data showed that Black males between the ages 15-34 were more than 20 times more likely to die by gun homicide than their white counterparts and there was a 49 percent increase in the number of gun homicides among Black females in 2020 compared to the year prior. Research by the Brookings Institute showed that the intersection of poverty, racial segregation and systemic disinvestment lead to these disproportionate outcomes.

In a post titled, “Why White Churches Need to Start Chopping Up Guns,” Rev. Deanna Hollas of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship argued that ending gun violence in the US is directly tied to engaging in dismantling white supremacy.

“We must dismantle white supremacy; by hosting a Guns to Gardens event your church creates an opportunity for the community to examine our reliance on guns,” Hollas wrote. “You create an opportunity for your mostly white church to examine the well-toned muscle that reacts when we believe we are under threat, and instead turn toward a different understanding of safety.”

And that’s true for his churches too, Curl-Dove says.

While New Creation is the more progressive of the two, it is mostly white and Faith Presbyterian is almost a completely white organization. May also stated that almost all of the guns that he’s chopped since 2018 were from white gun owners and none were from his neighborhood.

So what gives? If the people turning in guns are white, and the organizations chopping guns are white, is it helping those most impacted by gun violence? The answer isn’t so black and white, according to Curl-Dove.

“I think there’s a misconception that us taking these unwanted guns is the be all end-all,” he says. “Every gun we chop makes our community one gun safer. That is good and important work for us to engage in. What we’re really hoping is this saw is a tangible but symbolic commitment to gun-violence prevention. It’s a visible way for us to see that we are not going to depend on guns anymore.”

May echoes Curl-Dove’s viewpoint. In the wake of the Mt. Tabor High School shooting earlier this year, many students reached out to May to ask about cutting up guns.

“They didn’t know where to focus their frustration,” he says. “They were asking if they could come and cut up a gun as a therapeutic activity…. There’s something iconic about the action itself. The conversations are deep; there’s healing and hope.”

A similar tactic that has become popular when it comes to combating gun violence is the model of gun buybacks, in which cities host events where people can turn in guns for cash or gift cards. In January, the city of Winston-Salem hosted a gun buyback event in which more than 500 firearms were purchased from the public. More than 60 percent of them were handguns and about 34 percent were long guns. Despite the event’s success, research hasn’t found a clear connection between buybacks and a decrease in gun violence. A 2013 article by Governing suggested that while raising awareness about gun violence, gun buybacks had little effect in curbing it, with a gun club owner calling it a “publicity stunt” while turning in a nonworking firearm. A meta-analysis from December 2019 in Current Trauma Reports suggested that gun buybacks should be included in broader violence reduction strategies.

And that’s something Curl-Dove is keeping in mind.

“This is not an alternative to advocacy or an alternative to something else,” he says. “We’re still going to try to make our community safer in ways that will actually make the community safer.”

And at the end of the day, May says, the reality is that there is one less gun in the world. Already this summer, there are scheduled disarmings to take place at Anthony’s Plot, and that’s a good thing, he says.

“I look at the guns that we cut up and I think about how changing that access could have prevented a different outcome,” he says. “So I don’t want to minimize what we’re doing. If we had done the same thing with [my father-in-law’s] guns, we could have had a different outcome. At the same time, I’m realistic about our numbers when it comes to impacting gun violence. But we believe that the single action is meaningful and they are reflective of the macro. There’s nothing neutral in life; every positive is important. Things will add up and have weight to them, so we just keep doing what we do.”

To learn more about RAWtools and to find a disarming site near you, visit rawtools.org.

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