DENVER — Nearly three decades after her 3-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting that broke the silence outside a Denver duplex, Sharletta Evans was the one breaking through the silence as she relieved some of his pain hammering the barrel fade of a gun into a gardening tool.
The event, held at a Denver church, was part of a program run by RAWtools, a Colorado Springs-based non-profit organization that is inspired by the Bible verse “They shall turn their swords into plowshares and their spears in bill hooks”.
“To see one more gun on the street is so heartwarming. I love the idea of something that could potentially cause harm being turned into a garden tool that’s going to be used for productivity,” Evans said while holding a photo of his son Casson, who was killed just before Christmas in 1995.
RAWtools has disabled more than 1,000 firearms across the country since its inception in 2013, shortly after a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Many of the resulting garden tools are donated to participating churches or sold on the RAWtools website.
The group’s chief executive, Mike Martin, said 1,000 deactivated firearms “seems like little” given the nearly 400 million guns in the United States, but it’s a start.
“It’s a little bit by little bit. We affect change by making changes in our own lives and forcing others to do the same,” he said, noting that RAWtools also partners with groups that focus on rehabilitating offenders and their reconciliation with their victims.
The organization’s ultimate goal, he said, is to provide “a space for people to transform their trauma from something that brings death into their lives to something that brings life.”
In another recent event at a church in nearby Aurora, which has seen an alarming increase in gun violence, the group staged an anonymous gun buyout and disabled 75 firearms, including 50 semi- automatic. RAWtools pays $100 for standard rifles, $200 for handguns and semi-automatic firearms, and $300 for AR-style rifles.
Chris Silkwood of Denver donated his semi-automatic rifle plus $500 to RAWtools after his wife heard about the organization and said she wanted him to get rid of the gun for his birthday.
Silkwood worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for a construction company that contracted with the US military and purchased the rifle and a handgun after the military demanded that company employees be armed.
About a year after quitting work in the Middle East, Silkwood said the Sandy Hook shooting made him think of his own young daughter – who was just starting school at the time – and why anyone who should own a rifle like his and the one used in the massacre.
“I couldn’t think of a good reason,” Silkwood said. “It’s designed for one purpose and that is to kill people, and usually a lot of people.”
Silkwood, who said he was not averse to all guns, did not want to sell the rifle for fear it would end up in the wrong hands, so it sat unused for about a decade until that, with the help of RAWtools, he made it his wife’s birthday present.
He said he felt both relief and pride at the gardening tool he had created.
“The feeling of relief came from the fact that this weapon was no longer there and was never going to be used for anything except basically gardening,” he said.
For Evans, RAWtools’ mission overlaps with his own, which includes speaking publicly about his journey to forgive – and even defend – his son’s killers.
She said the journey began the same night her son died in her arms, when she said she felt a presence and heard a voice asking if she would forgive the killers. She immediately accepted.
Evans, who later formed a gang prevention organization and now heads the Colorado Crime Survivors Network, took the opportunity in 2012 to meet face-to-face for eight hours with one of the shooters, Raymond Johnson, who was serving his sentence. in a Colorado prison. From that point, she says, she accepted Johnson as her son and began advocating for his release.
Johnson, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, completed a juvenile rehabilitation program as an adult and walked out of prison a free man last November. Evans said the other shooter, Paul Littlejohn, is expected to be released soon.
For Evans, healing took many forms – through her spirituality, forgiveness and advocacy work. But she said she finds the most peace in telling Casson’s story.
“As long as I continue to reach out to others, I’m keeping Casson alive,” she said. “And that’s my goal. As long as I live, I will keep Casson alive with me by sharing my story of forgiveness and how God is able to heal you.