New Haven is taking the Old Testament to heart with its “Beat Swords into Plowshares” project, a new initiative designed to convert guns into gardening tools.

The project is a collaboration among many groups, including the gun safety nonprofit the Newtown Action Alliance and the New Haven Police Department, which collects the guns from the public in exchange for retail gift cards. Volunteer metal sculptors and members of the clergy then disassembled the guns, and a Colorado-based group named RAWtools taught inmate volunteers from the Connecticut Department of Correction to forge the metal into gardening tools. The final products will be donated to New Haven community gardens and high schools with gardening programs.

The name of the project comes from Old Testament scriptures that say, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

RAWtools Director Mike Martin told the News that the scriptural basis of the project’s name informs its nonviolence education and also shows the importance of “being able to welcome people who come in and out of your neighborhood with open arms, not bearing arms.”

“Forging some of the gun parts into garden tools is a marvelous bit of symbolic sleight of hand,” New Haven sculptor Gar Waterman said to the News. On Monday, Waterman’s studio hosted disassembly of 141 guns.

Three New Haven Police Department officers were overseeing the process at all times, said Bishop Jim Curry of the Episcopal Church. For each type of gun, he added, a specific template directed participants to saw the barrel and dismantle the weapon.

“I have to say I have been working in anti-gun ministries and community action for over 20 years, and this is a high point for me,” Curry said.

RAWtools arrived on Tuesday to begin training the inmates at the New Haven Correctional Center.

On Thursday morning, the process of turning deconstructed guns into tools began at the NHPD loading dock. Under the oversight of Virginia-based blacksmith Larry Martin, four inmates clad in heavy-duty welding gloves began forging the tools. They carried red-hot gun metal back and forth from forge to anvil, where they hammered the parts into shape.

Newtown Action Alliance member Steve Yanovsky, who helped manage the program, told the News that the inmates learned the forging skills “phenomenally” quickly.

The New Haven Police Department and Yale New Haven Hospital have run voluntary gun buy-backs for seven years, taking hundreds of firearms off the streets, NHPD Public Information Officer David Hartman wrote in a Sept. 13 press release.

“These weapons will no longer be able to cause harm and death,” Hartman wrote. “They will never fall into the hands of violent criminals. They will never be the instruments of suicide, the intentional killing of a person or the accidental death by the hands of a curious child.”

Curry acknowledged that some may say 140 guns is a drop in the bucket, considering how many guns are on the street. But “a whole lot of drops” ultimately fills a bucket, Curry said.

After the tool construction on Thursday, leaders of the groups in the coalition took the NHPD podium.

Since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, said Rev. Ian Douglas, bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, combating gun violence has been a major part of his ministry. Among the victims was 6-year-old church member Ben Wheeler. Douglas buried the child.

In the following weeks, Douglas began developing a network of over 80 bishops committed to using their positions to battle gun violence. Participating in the “Beat Swords into Plowshares” program is part of that work.

“Guns into Plowshares is quite amazing because it brings together so many elements,” said Douglas, who dismantled 15 rifles and 20 handguns over the course of the day. It helps “individuals who want to volunteer their weapons. … It helps to get dangerous weapons off the street and limits the public health risks. … Working with the police department to destroy guns is good collaboration.”

This coming spring, many of the handcrafted tools that the program produces will go toward New Haven Public Schools agricultural programs. The crops will be harvested and donated to area soup kitchens.

“Instead of tracking how many people we lose, we can track how many pounds of food we have grown,” Martin said, holding a newly forged mattock — the first of the swords beaten into plowshares.

Sammy Westfall |