On Halloween weekend, families in the city deck their porches and children adorn their porches, and the fall air fills quiet neighborhoods. There weren’t too many decorations in Kensington, but it was Raw Tools’ official opening day, a turning point for Shane Claiborne, who has spent much of his life and career advocating for gun prevention.
Philadelphia’s Kensington-Allegheny intersection routinely grabs headlines for its high concentration of gun violence and its open-air drug market, leading to numerous political tours for officials wanting to get a sense of the scope of the problem in the area.
But just a block from the Esperanza Health Center, maybe about a four-minute walk from the train station, is Raw Tools Philly, where Claiborne and his wife Katie Jo open their doors to families and friends of those who have lost a loved one a weapon.
“We want it to be both hopeful and beautiful, but also to honor people’s grief and pain and their experiences of gun violence, because obviously so many people going in and out here have their own stories of tragedy and survival said Claiborne, a former Tennessee seminary student turned activist using his faith as a guide.
Claiborne and Jo have been based in Kensington for 25 years. Her first memory after settling in was a violent event, a young 19-year-old man being shot in her neighborhood and memorials. Many of them.
“It’s so important to do this personally. Center people affected by gun violence. I don’t know many people who lose an argument (…) I don’t think we’re going to make people change their minds,” Claiborne added.
The design of Raw Tool moves between memorial and protest. It is a reflection in a way and a wake up call in another way.
“I wanted it to feel like it touched your heart,” Claiborne said of the design, adding that every moment was intentional. “It’s not just a space to think, it’s also a space to act.”
On the room’s windowsill hangs a display of trinkets, mostly jagged rings rough at the edges that were spheres in the past. A deeper interior leads visitors to what Claiborne calls a “restoration room,” akin to an exhibit, where the surrounding walls are filled with images of victims pounding a weapon that at one point caused unimaginable pain.
Some images showed the results of the blacksmithing – garden tools made from the remains of a gun that was taken to an unspecified location, disassembled, decommissioned and taken to Raw Tools for reuse.
“I document every weapon because I want to, not because we have to, which is crazy,” Clairborne added while detailing the process of breaking down a weapon into its core components.
“It’s taking guns off the streets and it’s also symbolic,” noted Carol Lastowka, the southeast coordinator of CeaseFirePA, an organization that advocates for gun prevention laws and organizes local countermeasures.
Philadelphia, and Kensington in particular, are at the center of the gun reform talks. Ahead of the 2023 mayoral election, candidates looking to replace tenured Jim Kenney will be in the spotlight for their plans to tackle gun violence.
Some of them send a message from the start. Rebecca Rhynhart, the former two-time City Inspector, announced her application in Nichols Park in West Philadelphia, which has a high incidence of violent gun incidents.
Just days before her announcement, Rhynhart released a bombshell report detailing the Philadelphia Police Department’s many pitfalls, including mismanagement of funding, resource allocation, staffing issues, slow response times and inconsistent strategies.
Former Alderman Allan Domb told AL DÍA during his fourth community tour in Kensington that he believed a declaration of emergency was long overdue and called the tense scene around him “un-American”.
Another candidate, Cherelle Parker, said the city is at a “crossroads” that is leaving the Philadelphia community hopeless.
“Right now we need strong leadership, and that leadership must be prepared to make the difficult 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 use “every government tool” to drastically reduce gun violence. Although Parker enacted legislation to increase a police presence on the street, this suggests a record of action rather than strategy.
So early in the mayoral campaign, it’s hard to tell if the candidates still have plans to be sacked, but everyone is confident they know the government machine best.
Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, the now-resigned councilwoman who ran District 7 with Kensington, says violence is rooted in poverty. When asked what decisive actions she would take, Quiñones-Sánchez stressed that government agencies and stakeholders would need to come together.
“A plan doesn’t work if you drop it from above,” she wrote on Twitter.
“In this area, we tried through several laws to get the state to finally give us permission to control guns in the city, but it never happened (…) We were involved in several lawsuits to get guns under control got it, but it never materialized,” she said.
When asked if she thought a state of emergency was necessary, she did not elaborate on the need for community intervention, but cited it.
“The organizations based in Kensington are important and effective and should serve as models for what will work in other parts of the city,” Quiñones-Sánchez told AL DÍA. “There’s always been a strong grassroots leadership (sic.) in Kensington, which I recognized in the ’80s when I was in high school. I’m happy that others are finally becoming aware of the good in the neighborhood,” she continued.
And community is the very theme that recently opened up in Kensington, where Raw Tools Philly hopes to attract a community looking to get rid of their guns.
Latowska, herself a hunting rifle owner, said gun violence has haunted her throughout her life and forced her into activism.
“You can turn a weapon of war into something that feeds people. It’s going to teach them skills, gardening skills,” she said.
“We need more signs of hope.”
When asked about policy failings, Latowska admitted that the lack of proper legislation had kept the city hostage at gunpoint. She cited fear-mongering about losing Second Amendment rights, an article in the Constitution that often manifests itself in courts that uphold current policies.
“I’m a gun owner,” she said. “I know that none of these sane gun laws (…) will violate the rights of a Second Amendment.”
Quiñones-Sánchez could have a point. The state’s punitive prevention has hampered efforts in the face of costly lawsuits that dragged on in court and effectively spooked efforts to pass gun laws at the city level.
“Philadelphia needs to be given the tools to fight it (…) Right now we need legislation. It’s not just numbers. These are people with names. So many of them are children,” Latowska pointed out.
Meanwhile, Claiborne is spurring a movement that will hopefully revolve the narrative around guns and turn them into gardening tools. For Claiborne and Jo, the process should be therapeutic, honoring the loss of life and turning grief into a moment where a person is in control of their grief, not the gun.
To obtain it, Claiborne works with various authorities and extensively ensures that the weapon 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 streets.
But some of the most influential work, he said, comes from individuals who willingly donate a gun that has plagued their lives to Raw Tools.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” he recalls.
“A family moved to Philadelphia and one of their family members gave them an AR-15 as a welcome gift to Philadelphia. They googled how to get rid of a gun and she stopped us (…) He called and I drove for half an hour, we chopped it up and now we’re doing something for his nursery right now,” Claiborne said.
“We try to honor what’s best for them.”