Guns to Gardens: New Haven Nonprofit Transforming Guns, Lives to Improve Communities
With buy-back programs and training in blacksmithing, Swords to Plowshares turns guns into garden tools and transforms the lives of young people affected by gun violence.
As a former nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital, Pina Violano has seen the impact of gun violence firsthand. “During my 40-plus years as a nurse, I have cared for hundreds of gunshot victims and witnessed the devastation guns can have on individuals, families and communities,” Violano said. Inspired to reduce gun violence by taking firearms off the street, she co-founded Swords to Plowshares Northeast.
The New Haven-based nonprofit works in partnership with local law enforcement to reduce the number of guns in communities through a “100% anonymous, no questions asked” buy-back program. It then teaches young people affected by violence the craft of blacksmithing to transform the weapons into art, jewelry and gardening tools. As a result, the unique program is helping to solve a social problem while also creating economic opportunity and hope in the community.
“We want our kids to realize there are other paths they can follow,” Violano said.
Since 2016, Violano says, Swords to Plowshares has helped remove more than one thousand guns from streets across Connecticut funded by private donations and municipally financed buy-back programs. Police then vet all firearms – to ensure that they’re neither stolen nor been used in a crime — prior to being disassembled by police then donated to the nonprofit.
The gun buy-back program, Violano says, is only a small part of the solution. Providing access to mentors and job skills development, she contends, is equally important to reducing gun violence — particularly among adolescents and young adults. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearms were the leading cause of death among children, teens and young adults under age 25 in the United States.
This past summer, with financial support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and a grant from the Episcopal Diocese, Violano and Bishop Jim Curry, the organization’s lead blacksmith, created an internship program that enabled six teens, ages 14 to 16 years old, to learn jewelry making and blacksmithing skills using gun parts. All participants came from communities with high rates of gun violence who are at risk of being gun users or victims.
Parts of a single rifle, says Violano, can be forged to create three garden tools or roughly forty jewelry pieces. A small portion of the jewelry — including heart-shaped necklaces — is sold through the organization’s online store to provide financial support for the program, while most is gifted to survivors of gun violence or family members of those killed by guns.
One young person shared with Violano that he had lost friends to guns. “He thought at age 16 he was living on borrowed time,” Violano said. “We need to change the narrative around guns and provide education, building self-esteem, and most importantly, giving youth hope of a better future.”
Over the twelve-week internship, the young participants earn $15 an hour and are mentored by the Swords to Plowshares team. Violano also trained the youth in CPR, how to use a tourniquet to treat a gunshot wound, EpiPen use, and how to recognize and treat a drug overdose.
“Many of our participants are dealing with underlying traumas and are worried about finding a safe place to live or where to get their next meal,” Violano said. “We provided an opportunity for youth to have a real job, taught them life-saving skills and the trade of blacksmithing.”
The garden tools — including trowels and mattocks, used for digging ground with rocks or roots — are also sold online. The nonprofit frequently donates them to urban community gardens across Connecticut. “It’s powerful to be able to take a gun that could have destroyed a community and turn it into something that is helping to provide access to fresh, healthy food,” Violano said.
Violano says that her organization is not focused on confiscating legal guns, but rather ensuring gun safety by providing a safe venue for individuals to voluntarily turn in guns so that the firearms never result in tragedy. At all buy-back events, Violano’s organization provides free gun locks and educates on the importance of safe storage. Additionally, she has collected over 2,000 anonymous surveys since 2011 on the types of firearms turned in, reasons for owning a gun, how the firearm was obtained, access to children and storage practices and more. A 2023 study found that 90% of child-related accidental shooting deaths were due to loaded and unlocked guns. Since its founding, Swords to Plowshares Northeast has distributed more than 400 gun-safes and over 300 gun locks.
Violano says, “The biggest challenge isn’t finding people willing to voluntarily turn in their guns— it’s finding funding to continue the program’s internship program and expand the number of young people the organization can serve.”
“Our mission is about changing hearts, minds and transforming communities,” she said.
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