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If you walk into Shane Claiborne’s Kensington basement, you’ll find hundreds of firearms.
Nothing to be afraid of. They’ve already been chopped into pieces. Using blacksmith equipment, Claiborne will heat each piece to the point that it’s malleable, then beat it into a functioning garden tool.
He’s been doing this work — “gun transformation,” he calls it — for about a decade now in partnership with the Colorado-based RAWtools.
Claiborne accepts donated guns, cuts them into parts, then tours neighborhoods in Philadelphia and communities nationwide that have been impacted by violence. With his forging hand and hammer in tow, he helps victims and their loved ones find emotional healing through the physical brutalization of homicidal hardware.
“It’s just about creating a space where we can honor the trauma and the pain of communities like ours here in Kensington, and refuse to allow this to be normal,” Claiborne said. “An AR-15 that’s been transformed, it can never hurt again.”
So far this year, 182 Philadelphians have been murdered. That’s up 6% from the 2018 total to date, and outranks above the homicide rates in Chicago, Houston and New York City.
This March, Claiborne cowrote a book called Beating Guns. He’s taken his gun-beating strategy on a 30-city tour, working with high-profile victims like the families of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. He returned to Philly this week from South Carolina, where he facilitated a session with Reverend Sharon Risher, whose mother was killed in the 2015 Charleston church shooting.
Locally, Claiborne helped state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell smash steel a few years ago in memory of her father, her brother and her teenage son — all of whom died in gunfire. The first-term legislator, who is the first Muslim woman elected to the Pa. House, participated in a state hearing on gun violence earlier this week, working to determine causes, effects and potential solutions to gun violence.
“It was very cathartic,” Johnson-Harrell told Billy Penn about the forging session. “You’re just basically hammering at the gun. It becomes soft, when you hit it with a metal hammer. It was like a release.”
The work, for Claiborne, is touching.
“It’s kind of a release valve for people’s pain, when you see them just beating the crud out of guns,” he said.
The author and activist’s next idea? Open a physical storefront in the Riverwards. He’d continue accepting donated firearms, allow people to beat them for free, and sell the resulting gardening tools.
That would help Claiborne stretch his reach, allowing even more people to use the metal-molding strategy as a coping mechanism for neighborhood violence. And the product sales could sustain the operation.
All he needs is a physical space and more free time…and an anvil, which fellow blacksmiths have offered to donate.
“There’s not any shortage of opportunities,” Claiborne said. “It’s more for me a capacity issue.”
Johnson-Harrell is already on board. She thinks any shop that will help take guns off the street is a positive for Philadelphia.
“I think people who live in my community, they want the guns gone,” she said. “This is a way of turning guns into something useful.”
For now, it’s just an idea. Claiborne needs to determine whether it’s actually feasible — but he’s optimistic.
“I’d like to have these blacksmithing stations all over the country,” Claiborne said. “In the end, it’s a beautiful way of honoring people’s trauma and pain and casting a vision that’s hopeful.”