In 2011, Oakland resident Paula Hawthorn was enjoying her early retirement gardening, knitting, and taking care of her grandchildren. But she was deeply concerned about the violence washing over Oakland. That year, the city saw a total of 110 homicides. Three of those stood out to Hawthorn: they were children under the age of 6.

“After that, I felt like I had to do something,” Hawthorn said. Her research led her to the Oakland Ceasefire Program, which launched in 2006. Ceasefire is a violence-reduction strategy first used in Boston in the 1990s. It involves identifying the individuals and groups most involved in gun violence, reaching out to them with life coaches and counselors who offer help to turn their lives around, and focusing heavy police resources on those who reject help. Hawthorn became a supporter of Ceasefire as well as the Coalition for Police Accountability, which aims to improve OPD through better oversight.

But in recent years, she has wanted to do more to help send a message of peace throughout the community. As a woman of faith, she decided to engage with her church to launch another project that can help reduce violence.

One of the more specific tactics that the Ceasefire Program uses to prevent shootings is to get guns off the street. Last year, the Oakland Police Department recovered a total of 1,199 guns. In 2020, 1,272 firearms were recovered. Hawthorn felt that this goal could be advanced by the community, also.

“The presence of guns is what is driving these homicides. We all know this,” Hawthorn said. “Another thing that is absolutely true, is that in societies where there is low trust in the police, you have high homicide rates. And that is because if you don’t trust the police to do something, then you have to do it yourself.” 

During the summer of 2020, Michael Curry, the presiding bishop at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which Hawthorn attends, introduced members of the church to a national movement that turns guns into gardening tools. Called “Guns to Gardens,” the project was created about a decade ago by Colorado resident Michael Martin after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut and harkens back to a famous Bible passage, Isaiah 2:4: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The barrel of a decommissioned gun (left) and a shovel head forged from another barrel. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

“This is a faith-based community approach where we are saying we need to take these weapons of destruction and turn them into tools for good things,” Hawthorn said. 

Hawthorn decided it was time to host a gun buyback event in Oakland to recover firearms and, inspired by Guns to Gardens, to melt them down into tools. The last gun buyback event in Oakland had taken place in 2012 at St. Benedict’s Church where 300 firearms were recovered. 

Hawthorn said that the members of St. Paul’s were on board with her idea of rallying donors and volunteers to host a buyback. 

“If you say you’re having a gun buyback, everybody goes ‘oh, what?’ But, if you say, we’re taking guns and forging them into garden tools, then it’s emotionally appealing,” she said.

What resulted has been a unique partnership between faith groups, the police, and a metal artist that’s already recovered and transformed weapons, with plans to do more.

Forging unlikely partnerships

Hawthorn contacted the Oakland Police Department to learn what she needed to do to host a gun buyback. Assistant Police Chief Darren Allison explained to Hawthorn how to safely host the event. At a gun buyback, the Oakland Police Department needs to be present to ensure that firearms are unloaded. Each gun gets tagged, safely transported to OPD, and the department runs ballistics tests to check if any weapon has been used in a crime. Finally, the guns must be “decommissioned.”

Deputy Chief Roland Holmgren said that the process of decommissioning the firearms requires  that they no longer meet the federal legal standard of being considered a firearm, meaning they are broken down to the point they’re no longer able to fire a bullet. Typically, recovered firearms get sent to a foundry where they get melted down. 

In the case of turning the firearms into garden tools, the process is a little different. The firearms have to be broken down manually or with the help of heavy machinery. “It takes a certain number of staff to complete the process from beginning to end,” said Holmgren. Usually this requires 8 to 12 officers.

Hawthorn enlisted the help of another church member Vicki Larson, who designed a website to publicize and raise funds for the buyback, and Rev. Dr. Mauricio Wilson, who set up a special fund to pay those surrendering guns at the event. Hawthorn made a quilt to give as a prize to a randomly selected donor who contributed to the fund, and the Oakland Police Department managed to get the Oakland A’s to donate 100 ticket vouchers which were given out to people turning in guns, volunteers, and to Pastor Billy Dixon from At Thy Word Christian Center’s youth group. Once the website was up and running, the church began sharing the news and donations poured in. 

“It really came from grassroots,” Hawthorn said. “It was a lady handing me five dollars after church. In Oakland, we want to do something and there is so little we can actually do. This was something to do.”

Rogers handles a gun barrel in his workshop. Credit: Amir Aziz
Broken down gun parts are heated in a furnace before they’re reshaped into tools. Credit: Amir Aziz

Next, Hawthorn needed to find a blacksmith, so she reached out to local artist Jon Sarriugarte. After speaking with Jon Sarriugarte —Sarriugarte and his wife Kyrsten built the fire-breathing snail car that Mayor Libby Schaaf uses to ride around town during special events—Sarriugarte suggested that John Colle Rogers, a local blacksmith and steel sculptor, be recruited to forge the guns and turn them into garden tools. Rogers had worked on a similar project in 2018, part of the “Art of Peace – Alameda County” exhibit. 

With everything in place, the group set its sights on a gun buyback event for June 11. But they also wanted to be able to hand out garden tools at the buyback, which meant they needed something they didn’t already have: surrendered firearms.

AK-47s, submachine guns, a flintlock musket, and a Desert Eagle

Rogers sent a request to the police department for firearms. 

“I said, get me 50 long guns, rifles, and shotguns, whatever kinds you have,” Rogers said. “OPD released, which was, I’m sure, a tremendous amount of paperwork and headache, 50 guns where cases were already closed.”

“They showed up with four cars and ten cops and the evidence tech in his white lab coat,” Rogers said. The first step was to decommission the guns. “One of the cops asked if I had a hydraulic press. I have something better, a reciprocating power hammer.” This industrial power tool acts as a hammer and an anvil. 

Rogers hosted different officers during three work sessions to turn the guns into tools to be given out at the event. 

The process of creating a shovel includes taking the barrel, heating it up inside a forge, and while hot, plying it open, pounding the barrel on an anvil with a hammer, shaping it, and letting it cool off.

At Thy Word Ministries, a church in deep East Oakland, hosted the buyback this past June. Rogers along with members of St Paul’s Episcopal Church and OPD officers, handed out 50 newly forged gardening tools, Target gift cards, and Chevron gas cards to anyone showing up to surrender a firearm. In total, 131 firearms were turned in, and over $10,000 in gift cards were given away. 

Some of the 131 surrendered firearms at the Guns to Gardens buyback event in Oakland. Credit: John Colle Rogers
The Oakland Police Department supplied Rogers with previously recovered guns to create the first batch of tools. Credit: Amir Aziz
Remnants from decommissioned firearms after being crushed on a reciprocating power hammer. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The weapons included AK-47s, a Russian-made rifle used by at least 30 nations’ militaries, an M16 style rifle used in the US military, a Mac 11, a submachine gun, a Desert Eagle pistol, a .68 caliber flintlock musket, and a Derringer, a small caliber double barrel pistol. John Wilkes Booth used an early version made by the same manufacturer to kill President Abraham Lincoln.

The guns surrendered at the buyback have not been processed by OPD yet, but Rogers hopes that he’ll soon be able to take some of these weapons and start on another round of garden tools.

Oakland Police Captain Holmgren said that many of the guns that end up on Oakland’s streets originate from gun shops and shows in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico and are illegally trafficked here. Another challenge, he said, are ghost guns, which are made from mail-ordered parts in people’s homes. In 2017, the Oakland Police Department recovered nine of these handmade guns. That number jumped to 280 last year.

A ‘cathartic’ experience

The process of breaking down guns and forging them into tools was enriching for the officers who particpated, said Rogers and Holmgren.

“Playing with fire, period, is cathartic,” Rogers said. “Most cops are gun people. It was interesting for us to converse on that level, but also to think about these objects in a different light.”

Holmgren described the process as “therapeutic” for officers, who face a lot of stress in their jobs, including responding to shootings and interacting with victims and their families. While at the start of the project there was some skepticism, once the police offers were directly involved in seeing the firearms being smashed and the remnants used in a different way, their view drastically changed. 

“It had just such a positive impact that they began asking, ‘Okay, when’s the next time we’re going to make the tools’. That creates an overall healthier officer,” Holmgren said. “Especially when they’re constantly faced with unfortunate scenes and incidents.”

For Rogers, seeing gun barrels cut and manipulated into shovels is a magical experience. ‘If the gun barrel is not too long, I can knock out and make a shovel in 15 minutes,” he said.

Organizers of June’s Guns to Gardens buyback event, from left to right: Pastor Billy Dixon, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Paula Hawthorn, Patty Hall, Councilmember Loren Taylor, OPD Captain Roland Holmgren. In the front row, Glen Upshaw. Credit: Paula Hawthorn

Hawthorn hopes that St. Paul’s can host another event in December, around the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. She knows it’s a big ask and requires a lot of monetary support. St. Paul’s guns to gardens website is currently collecting donations for future events. 

The city is also interested in funding gun buybacks. On June 21, the City Council unanimously approved Councilmember Sheng Thao’s legislation that would fund a new gun buyback strategy. The money will come from a new state program dedicated to helping cities get guns off the streets. 

Hawthorn understands that gun buybacks rarely make a big direct impact in terms of the number of guns on the streets, but she said any impact at all is important, and the message the event sends is also significant. 

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s a nice drop,” she said. “There were so many stories of people coming to the buyback and saying, ‘you know, I’ve had this gun for a while, my dad had it, and we’ve had it in the house, and I would just like to get rid of it.’ Let’s get those guns out of the house. Let’s do that.”

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.