Dad’s gun

Apr 12, 2019 by

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On a recent Tuesday, I stood in a church parking lot as a blacksmith sawed my father’s old rifle into pieces. Those pieces would be placed in a forge, then hammered and twisted into a garden tool. Whatever sentiment I harbored for this family heirloom dissolved when I considered the greater purpose of transforming an instrument that takes life into one that cultivates it.

Mike Martin, a Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith from Colorado Springs, forms the metal of what used to be a gun into a hand-held garden tool at the Hesston College beating guns event. — Larry Bartel/Hesston College

Mike Martin, a Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith from Colorado Springs, forms the metal of what used to be a gun into a hand-held garden tool at the Hesston College beating guns event. — Larry Bartel/Hesston College

That purpose is something that Mike Martin, the blacksmith, has made his life’s work. Martin is founder and executive director of RAWTools, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that promotes peace through a process that is at once practical and powerfully symbolic. On the practical side, Martin’s organization encourages people to donate their guns and transform them into garden tools, thereby reducing the number of weapons on our streets and fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of turning “swords into plowshares.”

But given that there are more guns than people in the U.S., that task is clearly too large for a single organization. So RAWTools uses this act of transformation to start a conversation about violence in our communities and what we can do to stop it. As its website puts it, RAWTools wants people to “lay down their weapons and pick up new tools for conflict resolution.” This is why it also offers nonviolence workshops and promotes resources for neighborhood development.

On April 2, RAWTools brought its message to Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., as part of a tour to promote a book that Martin wrote with author Shane Claiborne: Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence. I had donated my father’s .22 Remington for the event thinking it would be nice to turn this rarely-used weapon into something useful. I had no idea it would be the centerpiece of a moving ceremony where 200 people gathered in the parking lot and sang “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” as Martin and several people from the audience took turns hammering the barrel of Dad’s old gun.

I realize donating my father’s rifle was hardly “taking a gun off the street” (though its future uses would ultimately be beyond my control). For most of the last 50 years it was stored unloaded in my grandmother’s house, then in my father’s house until his death in 2015. In recent years, it stood in a corner of my basement draped in a purple blanket.

My father bought the rifle when he was a young teenager in Newton, Kan. After a few years of hunting rabbits and squirrels, the gun went dormant. Once when I was a boy myself, Dad took it out of Grandma’s closet and we went to my uncle’s farm for target practice. I remember the kick of the stock against my shoulder that nearly knocked me down. With a bit of practice, I got used to the kick and could keep my balance while I took aim and pulled the trigger. I don’t remember if I ever hit the target.

Dad never took me back for more practice and I never asked. The gun returned to its closet. No one has fired it since.

Yet the gun has held special sway in my family. Dad enjoyed telling us, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, how he ordered it from the Sears catalog — behind his mother’s back! He told how he hunted with friends and how one day he surprised his mother by bringing rabbits home for her to skin and cook.

As young boys, my sons regarded the gun with curiosity and fascination. I would think from time to time that it might be fun to give them their day in the sun, aiming at a target. But we aren’t a gun family and the target practice never happened.

So my father’s gun collected dust, empty of cartridges and bullets. In fact, no ammunition has ever passed through its barrel since that day on the farm some 40 years ago.

Now the material from that weapon has a higher purpose. The metal from its barrel will be used to shape several mattocks — one for use in our garden, one for the community garden at Rainbow Mennonite, and two others for RAWTools to sell to help fund their efforts and the efforts of other organizations to promote nonviolent conflict resolution.

I have no idea if Dad, though he enjoyed puttering in his garden, would have ever given his boyhood gun up for this purpose. He never said as much, but I know he was pretty sentimental about it. Yet he was also proud of his Mennonite roots and spoke favorably and often of the church’s pacifist values. I’m sure he’d be proud to know that his boyhood relic has found new life as a tool for peace.

Mark Wiebe is a former reporter for The Kansas City Star who grew up in Rainbow Mennonite Church. He lives in Roeland Park, Kan., with his wife, Anne Bloos. Learn more about RAWTools at

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