A military police officer-turned-pacifist makes garden tools from guns


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Spencer Goldstein used to think he was a good guy with a gun.

A military police officer who graduated from West Point and earned a master's degree from Liberty University, Goldstein believed guns were a necessary force for good.  

But several unexpected life developments and a personal reckoning with his Christian faith led to a complete shift in perspective. Now, with less than a month left of his nine years of service, Goldstein is leaving the military as a conscientious objector. 

His “repentance tour” as he calls it, started with an internship at RAWtools, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that employs blacksmithing to turn guns into garden tools while spreading a message of peace through community outreach.  

“You know, I’ve been in support of a lot of pro-gun things,” Goldstein said of his military career. “So for me to be in here cutting up guns and making life out of things — it’s a really cool experience.” 

RAWtools pulls on Christian scripture to define its three-part mission to “disarm hearts, cultivate peace and forge justice,” said Michael Martin, co-founder and executive director for the nonprofit. 

Martin is a former youth and young adult pastor in the Mennonite church. He co-founded RAWtools a decade ago with his father, Fred Martin, after a gunman killed 26 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Martin said they are driven to this work through their Mennonite faith, which emphasizes nonviolence and pacifism.

Their work has grown over the past few years, especially after the 2019 publication of their debut book, "Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence," co-written by Martin and author Shane Claiborne.

The nonprofit’s first years focused on gun buyback events, where Martin was invited to bring blacksmithing equipment and to supervise long lines of individuals hammering down the barrels of smelted guns. Now, though, these types of events are just one of many outlets for RAWtools to effect change. 

“We’ve gone from a small, kind of referral-based organization 10 years ago,” Martin said, “to a network of organic relationships across the county.” 

That network is allowing the organization to reach a broader audience with their message of peace. 

In June, for National Gun Violence Awareness Month, RAWtools will live stream a national, month-long guns-to-garden-tools marathon.

“If we blacksmith just one minute for every life lost to gun violence in 2022, that’s over 42,000 minutes,” Martin said. To honor each victim, “that means that we have to blacksmith 24-7 for 30 days and 18 hours.” 

At Food to Power, a food-equity nonprofit in Colorado Springs, garden beds have signs made from recycled gun parts. Food to Power partners with RAWtools for antiviolence workshops and gun buyback events.

RAWtools has also seen its reach grow in its home base of Colorado Springs. 

Local farms like Food to Power and Flying Pig Farm use the tools in community garden beds and decorate garden signs with re-used gun parts. 

Food to Power was established as a nonprofit to help build a healthy, equitable food system in Colorado Springs. The Food to Power campus is a gun-free site, and that’s partially due to its location in the Hillside neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, an area that has been historically impacted by gun violence.

Erin Adlerstein, director of food education and advocacy at Food to Power, gave Rocky Mountain PBS a tour of their educational farm. Here, every garden bed has a sign made from gun parts that cannot be turned into tools. 

“Being able to have art that is literally guns transformed into something beautiful and generative... is a way to make visual what we’re trying to do, on a more systemic level,” Adlerstein said. 

As RAWtools spreads its mission, city-wide — and national — gun violence is on the rise. A 2023 report from the Colorado Sun showed that gun-related deaths hit a 40 year high in 2021. The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence analyzed data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found a 32% increase in gun deaths in Colorado from 2010 to 2019. 

The mass shooting at Colorado Springs’ Club Q on November 19, 2022 that left five people dead and 25 others injured put the city back on the national radar of gun violence.

“We see a spike in gun ownership in minority, marginalized communities after things like … a Club Q shooting, when people feel at risk,” Martin said.

Although mass shootings may result in individuals pursuing guns for personal safety, suicide is an even greater risk than homicide when a gun is present. A 2022 study by Everytown found that 75% of gun related deaths in Colorado are suicides.

“Suicide in the army and in the military in general is just a horrible, horrible thing,” Goldstein said. “As a military police officer, I work as the liaison with the Colorado Springs Police Department [and] El Paso County Sheriff’s Office [on suicide cases]. There’s a common theme, and it’s the guns.” 

Martin’s blacksmithing workshop is full of disassembled guns. Gun barrels line the wall behind his anvils, awaiting pending reincarnation. 

Self-inflicted gunshot wounds were one of many factors that led Goldstein to change his mind about war and weapons.

The birth of Goldstein’s daughter, born with Down Syndrome and several medical complexities, completely changed his life, he said, including reimagining his belief of what it means to be Christian. Goldstein said he initially struggled to process the challenges of raising a child with disabilities and ultimately realized that it was a gift. 

“When we really looked at and how much we loved [my daughter] and how much God loved her, I began to think, ‘Alright, well if I’m wrong about that, what else am I wrong about?” Goldstein said.

Now, as an intern for RAWtools, Goldstein wants to share a message about his personal journey.

“It’s okay to change your mind about things,” Goldstein said. “Think about what you could be doing differently to make this world a better place.”

Zach Ben-Amots is an investigative multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at zachben-amots@rmpbs.org.