Local church hosts gun surrender event

LOCAL CHAPTER: Weaverville-based blacksmith Scotty Utz launched RAWTools-South, a local chapter of RAWTools, in January. Since its formation, the group has held several Guns to Gardens events. Photo courtesy of Stan Wilson

In January, students at Montreat College hosted RAWtools-South, a group that repurposes surrendered firearms and melts them down to make less lethal objects, such as garden tools.

RAWtools, a nationwide organization, recently formed the  Southern chapter and wasn’t certain how it would be received in the area, says local member Stan Wilson. But before the Montreat event, a friend offered the RAWtools-South volunteers a suggestion to put the students at ease: Ask if any of them had positive stories to share involving guns.

“That was a game changer,” Wilson recalls. The students told stories about their grandfathers teaching them to hunt or gathering over Labor Day weekend to shoot quail. “That felt important because it allowed the gun owners [to feel safe that] nobody was attacking them,” Wilson, who is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, explains. Some attendees were surprised by those reminiscences, as “they hadn’t considered that there could be these positive stories [about guns].”

RAWtools-South volunteers then asked the Montreat students if anyone had painful stories involving guns to share. “It turns out, just about everyone does,” Wilson says. “Some of them opened up with some pretty raw stories,” he says. Every student had been through active-shooter drills in school. Some had experienced active shooter events in high school or college, including UNC Chapel Hill’s August 2023 fatal shooting of a professor. Many students knew people who’d died from suicide using firearms.

Similar stories are expected Saturday, June 8, when First Baptist Church in Asheville hosts a Guns to Gardens firearm surrender event 10 a.m.-1 p.m. in its parking lot at 5 Oak St. Then at 2 p.m., Wilson and other volunteers from RAWtools-South, will begin forging them into garden tools and other items.

Reasons for surrendering

Wilson became involved in RAWtools-South through his friendship with Weaverville-based blacksmith Scotty Utz. Utz began volunteering for the nationwide RAWtools organization, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and orchestrates Guns to Gardens events nationwide. The national organization encouraged him to start RAWtools-South.

The June 8 event will be co-hosted by Asheville Friends, Circle of Mercy Congregation, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Haywood Street Congregation, Hood Huggers International and Land of the Sky United Church of Christ.

People have various reasons for surrendering firearms, organizers explain: to keep guns from an individual who may be mentally unwell or who is unable to safely operate a gun due to age or illness; to remove guns from a home with children or grandchildren; or to prevent it from potentially being stolen and used on the street or reentering the illicit gun marketplace.

For certain individuals, the decision might be cathartic. “We recognize for some people, guns call to mind family members who have passed on,” says First Baptist Church coordinating pastor Casey Callahan. For those people, he continues, smelting the weapon and turning it into a garden tool can be a different way of honoring that person.

At previous events, AR-15s, Glocks, semiautomatic rifles and pistols have been the most common guns surrendered, Wilson explains. Some donors have told Wilson that their firearms were inherited, particularly older shotguns and rifles.

In addition to forging events, RAWtools-South accepts guns at any time. Wilson says the organization receives such calls regularly. For more information, contact Wilson at stan@rawtoolssouth.org.

Forge ahead

Participants don’t need to register to surrender a firearm on June 8. They should come to the First Baptist Church parking lot with the unloaded gun in their backseat, trunk or rear of a van. The event won’t accept  ammunition; individuals should contact law enforcement to inquire about relinquishing unwanted ammunition.  A volunteer for Guns to Gardens will greet participants at the car, remove the firearm and bring it to a chop-saw station, explains Callahan.

The participants are then welcome to watch the dismantling process; they may also receive thank-you gift cards ranging from $100-$200 while supplies last. However, Guns to Gardens is not a gun buyback event, and no cash will be exchanged for firearms.

Volunteers will confirm that each weapon is unloaded; guns will be dry-fired into a “bullet trap” for additional assurance that all rounds have been removed. Next, volunteers wearing protective gear will make three cuts into the firearm with a chop saw — two cuts at either end of the receiver, which holds the ammunition, and one cut on the trigger mechanism. The process is required by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives so the surrendered object is no longer legally considered a firearm.

The dismantling procedure requires “a heavy-duty chop saw and a good bit of power,” Wilson explains. Rawtools-South will provide the Guns to Gardens event with six chopsaws capable of cutting metal and five power generators. Wilson notes that dismantling guns requires skilled training but not a certification; RAWtools-South also has its own safety protocol.

People can watch the volunteer blacksmiths at work when forging begins at 2 p.m. They’ll use a traveling forge, as well as an anvil and tongs to repurpose the materials into garden tools. “We try to use everything that can be used from a gun,” Wilson explains. Gun barrels are often usable for shovels or maddocks, which are similar to pickaxes. A pistol barrel can become cross pendants or a dough cutter. Some guns don’t have enough usable metal for tools, but they have triggers or springs that can be turned into jewelry. The nationwide RAWtools organization operates an online RAWShop, where it sells items made from firearm material.

‘Peacemaking communities’

In 2021 and 2022, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office issued 6,876 and 5,445 pistol permits, respectively, according to Buncombe County ID Bureau Director Pat Freeman.

The current number of permitted pistols in North Carolina is unknown. In 2023, the General Assembly overrode a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper to repeal the law requiring pistol owners to obtain purchase permits from their county sheriffs. (North Carolina residents must still acquire a permit for a concealed handgun through the sheriff, per the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.)

Last year, Circle of Mercy, the church where Wilson is co-pastor, hosted a gun surrender event with Land of Sky UCC, Asheville Friends and BeLoved Asheville. “Everyone was a little nervous, probably a little afraid of what could happen,” recalls Wilson. “We’re so stuck in this gun violence conversation, and we can’t seem to talk to one another and make much progress.” That event collected 19 guns. “The far bigger [impact] was four communities working together to try to get at this in a creative new way,” he says.

Given the politicized discussions involving guns, Wilson and Callahan emphasize that the events are nonpartisan. And Guns to Gardens’ organizers say it helps to hold such programs in faith communities.

“I think faith communities are called to be peacemaking communities,” says Callahan. “And this is an important part of peacemaking.”

Wilson adds that participating in Guns to Gardens makes him feel as if he is doing something tangible with his faith. “This is an action that calls for just a little bit of courage,” he says. “You wind up learning who your neighbors are and humanize this issue that we’re kind of blocked on.” And he thinks it helps recently disarmed people to witness the transformation of their firearms themselves through the dismantling and forging processes.

Wilson adds, “We joke sometimes that those guns are born again.”

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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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