Turning guns into garden tools with Raw Tools Philly
Shaine Claiborne and his wife, Katie Jo, turned a small Kensington workshop into a blacksmithing sanctuary for victims of gun violence.
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Editor's note: The video portion of this piece was recorded and produced by Kianni Figuereo, AL DÍA News Audiovisual Coordinator.
Over Halloween weekend, families in the city dress up their porches and children and the autumn air fills quiet neighborhoods. In Kensington, there weren’t too many decorations, but it was the official opening day for Raw Tools, a turning point for Shane Claiborne, who’s spent much of his life and career advocating for gun prevention.
The Kensington-Allegheny intersection in Philadelphia routinely makes headlines for its high concentration of gun violence and open-air drug market, resulting in numerous political tours for public officials who want to get a grasp of the volume of the issue in the area.
But just a block off of Esperanza Health Center, perhaps a roughly four-minute walk from the station, is Raw Tools Philly, where Claiborne and his wife, Katie Jo, open their doors to families and friends of those who lost a loved one at the hands of a gun.
“We want it to be both hopeful and beautiful but also to honor people’s grief and pain and their experiences with gun violence, cause obviously so many people that are gonna come in and out of here have their own stories of tragedy and survival,” said Claiborne, formerly a seminary student from Tennessee-turned activist who uses his faith as a guiding point.
Claiborne and Jo are Kensington residents of 25 years. Their first memory after settling in was a violent event, a young, 19-year-old man shot in their neighborhood and memorials. A lot of them.
“Making this personal is so important. Centering the people who have been impacted by gun violence. I don’t know too many people who lose an argument (...) I don’t think we’re going to argue people into changing their minds,” added Claiborne.
Raw Tool’s design tempers between a memorial and a protest. It is in some ways a reflection and in others a call to wake up.
“I wanted it to feel like it stirs you in the heart,” said Claiborne of the design, and added every moment was intentional. “It’s not just a space to reflect, it’s also a space of action.”
On the space’s window sill, trinkets hang on a display, mostly rugged, rough around the edges rings that, in the past, were bullets. Deeper inside leads visitors to what Claiborne calls a “restoration space” similar to an exhibition where the surrounding walls are filled with images of victims hammering at a weapon which at some point was the perpetrator of unimaginable pain.
Some images displayed the results of the blacksmithing — gardening tools fashioned from what remained of a gun that was taken to an unspecified location, broken down, decommissioned, and brought into Raw Tools for repurposing.
“I document every gun because I want to, not because we’re required to, which is crazy,” Clairborne added while detailing the process of breaking apart a weapon to its core parts.
“It’s taking guns off the street and it’s also symbolic,” noted Carol Lastowka, the Southeastern coordinator for CeaseFirePA, an organization that lobbies to push for gun prevention legislation and organizes response efforts on the ground.
Philadelphia, and Kensington specifically, is the heart of the conversation on gun reform. Ahead of the 2023 mayoral election, candidates who seek to replace term-limited Jim Kenney are put in the spotlight for their plans to tackle gun violence.
Some of them send a message from the outset. Rebecca Rhynhart, the former two-time City Controller, announced her bid in Nichols Park in West Philadelphia, where there lies a high record of violent incidents involving firearms.
Just days before her announcement, Rhynhart released a bombshell report detailing the many pitfalls of the Philadelphia police department, including funding mismanagement, resource allocation, staffing issues, slow response times, and inconsistent strategies.
Allan Domb, formerly a councilman at-large, told AL DÍA during his fourth community tour in Kensington that he believed an emergency declaration was long overdue and called the fraught scene surrounding him “un-American.”
Another candidate, Cherelle Parker, said the city was at a “crossroads,” rendering the Philadelphian community hopeless.
“Right now we need strong leadership, and that leadership has to be willing to make the tough decisions that will be necessary to move Philadelphia forward,” she said.
Parker left the question of an emergency unanswered, like Rhynhart, but said she would reach into “every tool of government” to drastically reduce violence borne of a gun. Although Parker has materialized legislation to increase the presence of a police force on the street, indicating a record of action in lieu of a strategy.
This early in the election campaign for Mayor, it’s hard to tell if candidates have plans yet to be released, but all of them are confident they know the government apparatus best.
Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, the now-resigned councilwoman who helmed District 7 containing Kensington, says violence is rooted in poverty. In asking what decisive measure she would take, Quiñones-Sánchez underlined it’s up to a coming together of government agencies and stakeholders.
“A plan doesn’t work when dropped from above,” she wrote on Twitter.
“In this space, we’ve tried through several pieces of legislation to get the state, who are ultimately the ones to give us permission to control guns in the city, but it’s never happened (...) We’ve been engaged in several lawsuits to get guns under control but it’s never materialized,” she said.
Responding to whether she believed a state of emergency was necessary, she did not specify but cited the necessity for community intervention.
“The organizations grounded in Kensington are important and effective and should serve as models for what will work in other parts of the city as well,” Quiñones-Sánchez told AL DÍA. “There has always been strong grassroots’ (sic.) leadership in Kensington, which I recognized during the 80s when I was in high school. I am glad that others are finally taking notice of the good that is happening in the neighborhood,” she continued.
And community is the very topic recently opened for business in Kensington, where Raw Tools Philly hopes to attract a community that wants to be rid of its guns.
Latowska, herself the owner of a hunting rifle, said gun violence followed her throughout her life, compelling her to activism.
“You can change a weapon of war into something that’s going to feed people. It’s going to give them skills, gardening skills,” she said.
“We need more signs of hope.”
When asked about policy failures, Latowska admitted the lack of reasonable legislation has held the city hostage under guns. She cited fearmongering around losing second amendment rights, an article in the constitution often manifesting in the courts that uphold current policy.
“I’m a gun owner,” she said. “I know that none of these common-sense gun laws (...) are going to infringe on anybody’s second amendment rights.”
Quiñones-Sánchez may have a point. The state’s punitive preemption has stymied efforts in the face of expensive lawsuits that drag in court, effectively spooking efforts to pass gun legislation at the city level.
“Philadelphia needs to be given the tools to fight it (...) Right now we need laws. It’s not just numbers. These are people with names. So many of them are children,” Latowska underlined.
In the meantime, Claiborne spurs a movement to hopefully turn the narrative around guns, turning them into gardening instruments. To Claiborne and Jo, the process should be therapeutic, it should honor the loss of life, and transform grief into a moment where a person is in control of their grief, and not the gun.
To obtain them, Claiborne partners with different agencies and exhaustively ensures that the gun is decommissioned.
“We have an endless supply,” he said, hoping to turn his operation into a scalable business to create jobs by taking guns off the street.
But some of the most impactful work, he said, comes from individuals who willingly donate a gun that has afflicted their lives, to Raw Tools.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” he recalled.
“One family moved to Philly, and one of their family members got them an AR-15 as a welcome-to-Philly gift. They googled how to get rid of a gun and it pulled us up (...) He called and I drove half an hour out, we chopped it up and now we’re making something for his kid’s room right now,” Claiborne said.
“We try to honor what’s best for them.”