Chopping Up the Gun (with images by Corie J. Cole)

Much has only gotten worse. In 2015, by the count of the people at the Gun Violence Archive, there were 335 mass shootings. (This term continues to have no set definition. For the GVA it is “four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter.”) In 2019, there were 417. In 2020, there were 611. In 2021, there were 690. 

Today is Friday, November 25th, 2022. As of this morning, there have been 610 mass shootings this year in the United States of America, one happening not yet a week ago, at Club Q, in Colorado Springs, Colorado; one happening three days ago, at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia. 

Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving: we say their names. Here is the joyful, just blooming face of Raymond Green Vance, alive last Friday, now wreathed in memorial in flowers. The victims are beloved. Their loves are bereft. The tealights burn low, burn out.

“I am just so sad,” the sister of Ashley Paugh, a patron killed at Club Q, tells a reporter. “Hoy mi corazón está de luto y dolor,” writes a friend of Derrick Rump, a bartender killed at Club Q. 

The shooters are given “no notoriety.” Or the shooters are subjects of repeated feature-length profiles: this one “covered up the camera of his phone with tape” and wrote, “I wish I could have saved everyone from myself.” That one recently asked to use they/them pronouns and has a homophobic porn star father who “struggled with an addiction to crystal meth.”

In my mind, they are young white men. I am not entirely correct. According to the research done by Jillian Peterson and James Densley of The Violence Project, the average age of a mass shooter is thirty-four (the youngest in their fifty-year database was eleven, the oldest seventy). Fifty-two percent of them are white. Of 172 mass shooters studied, a mere four were women and two of those were working with a man. 

Patterns emerge with places. School shooters, average age eighteen, most likely went to those schools. Of late, 43 percent of them are “Columbiners,” acting in imitation of that slaughter, and 80 percent of them will use firearms obtained from family members. The rate of death is 2.83 times higher if an armed officer is present at the school.  

Retail shooters, average age thirty-four, are more likely to be strangers to those places and their victims. Workplace shooters have probably been fired and shoot most often midweek, in December.

Densley argues that many of these mass shootings are “angry suicides.”

They have become such a commonplace that most mass shootings do not receive names. Some are briefly part of the ongoing stories of how we have learned to destroy each other through varieties of racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of gay people. Those that do not link to a larger cultural narrative are often forgotten entirely. To date, the most fatal mass shooting in Colorado Springs was at a birthday party in May 2021. Perhaps because it was classified as “domestic violence,” a boyfriend killing his girlfriend and her extended family, it barely entered the genre of whiplash that we call the news. To read the list of mass shootings (which is to neglect the much longer list of all shootings) is to experience something amoral, immoral, because it becomes tedious, a hellish new verse in “This Land Is Your Land”: Buffalo, Blacksburg, Pittsburgh, Uvalde. It is a ballad one must constantly revise. Already gone are the “high-profile” shootings of a week ago: two universities, in one day. Or of two months ago: a shooting in Memphis, for example, which was distinguished by the grotesque addition of being broadcast on Facebook Live.  

This week it is our turn to be hashtag strong. It is our turn to display the twenty-five-foot rainbow flag that was hung outside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, where forty-nine people were killed in 2016. With strangers and friends I stand in the street at City Hall, before that flag. Beautiful Thu is crying behind me. Her crying sounds like choking. Imagine you learn of a civilization, long ago, or far away, where humans were sacrificed, so that guns might live. That’s us, now.

Or: guns seem to live, to have the qualities of life, like other commodity fetishes. But fetishism is just bad magic, “the crudest form of religion,” not the good which is being and has life. Presently, we are alive and can act.


“I agreed to it,” a man named Pete says to me, over the phone, of destroying his guns. “I had both weapons in my possession.” 

He had the AR-15 that his fourteen-year-old son used to “complete suicide” in his bedroom, at their home in Kansas City, one April night in 2017. Pete was standing in the kitchen when he heard the shattering sound. 

“There were no signs of suicidal tendency or depression,” he says. His son “was a very loved kid with a lot of friends,” who did well in school. He had recently gone to a hockey skills camp. It was Pete who opened his son’s bedroom door.

The AR-15 had been “a recreational thing” for the two of them, Pete says. He kept it on safety. But his son “knew that weapon better than [he] did.” 

Pete’s employer helped him move to Colorado, an escape. His ex-wife followed, and they reunited. “She believed in me,” he says. “She was trying to keep me active,” to save or at least distract him from his agony. But in July of 2019, two years after he lost his son, she took Pete’s 9mm. “At the base of Pulpit Rock Park, she completed,” he says.

Suicides (here meaning a single person’s death) have long accounted for the majority of gun deaths, and 55 percent of them in 2021.

“I wasn’t gonna shoot it again,” Pete says of the 9mm. “I couldn’t. I had no desire to.” In the years after his son died, he had not so much as looked at the AR-15. “I watched them cut it up,” he says. “I went over and I touched it,” the weapon his son last held. “I just started bawling.” 

Pete’s voice is soft. It gets emphatic, ragged now. For any good to be wrested from such evil, “you physically have to do something,” he says.


The City of Denver, the City of Aurora, the Denver Broncos, and RAWTools have set up what looks like a shop class in a parking lot in Aurora, Colorado. This is on a Saturday in August, one of eight buybacks RAWTools organized in 2022. NO PHOTO NO VIDEO, a sign reads. Cars turn off a strip, past a taqueria, and into the parking lot of Living Water Christian Center—a Chevy Suburban, a Chevy Bolt, a Ford FX4, a Mercedes with the windows up. The cars, often outsized, are met by unarmed humans, on foot. This contrast seems intentional: the humans on foot protect the privacy of the humans who remain in their cars. Physically vulnerable, they give cover for the psychic vulnerability of the people who are trying to change. Guns are passed through the window, or by opening the trunk. The gun cases with their ducks and camo and flags are left at the check-in station in a pile on the ground, near the volunteers’ morning donuts. Payment comes in the form of Visa gift cards and is $50 for single-shot rifles, including double-barrel shotguns; $150 for handguns and semiautomatic rifles; and $250 for assault rifles. 

Mike Martin, the founder of RAWTools, takes the guns and discharges them into a metal cylinder filled with sand. The movements of a drive-through are familiar. Cars wait, as though for French fries, or absolution. The next stop is at one of the seven stations under a shade canopy. Two are for handguns, five are for long guns. Each station has a DeWalt chop saw and a bin for gun parts. Other supplies are nearby: a fire extinguisher, big bags of ear plugs, rows of twenty-seven-gallon “built to last” Office Depot tubs. Here’s a kind man named Fred. Fred’s glove says Vulcan Defender. He does not need to consult the charts, hung up at each station, with schematics of various handguns and long guns marked with neat slash lines that show where to render them inoperable. Fred knows. This morning he has set aside a few steel portions to be turned into toys. It looks like fireworks, like sparklers, the guns getting destroyed. Some saws shake in the effort. Some chopped gun parts continue to smoke after they hit the ground. 

It is wild to a see a thing of such power unmade. The lock nuts loosen. The shim rings fall. A door opens, and there’s another world. The pig bone gelatin is released from the bullet; it returns to the pig, who lives. The aluminum quits for its smelter: it can be a spoon, a window frame. The steel alloy is undone. The molybdenum finds a vein in the stockwork of some Silver Plume granite. The nickel is summoned by a magnet. The cobalt retreats to the Copperbelt, the magnesium its Salt Lake brine. The titanium is in a meteorite, our sun, this moon. The beloved dead rise. They go dancing at the queer nightclub where they are known and loved.

A seventy-something turned in his Uzi. There were the grandparents who didn’t want grandkids to find theirs. My wife killed herself with this gun, a man told the people who work the buybacks. I was going to commit suicide, and this was the tool. I found these biking on my way to school. One cut, two cuts, three. There is a burning smell, cashed blades on the ground. A fragment of hot steel smarts my cheek. One man chopping guns gives a fist bump, another a thumbs up.

Objects do not contain moral intent, even if their designs do. They are not magic. To chop a gun is not to rid its owner or any of us of a childhood that was horror, histories of rape, hatred, despair, a hot temper after an argument at the party that went south, a thought disorder, a fear of intruders, an admirable desire to protect others. We have been harmed. We harm. To chop a gun is just to make a world where it’s easier to be good.

I first go by the garage workshop in southeast Colorado Springs where the parts are remade into garden tools and toys and jewelry and sculptures on the day when Pete’s AR-15 is getting melted down. Hundreds of severed barrels are stacked on the shelves and the ground. The names stamped on them seem archaeological here: Eastfield; Knight; JCPenney; Fox Savage Arms; Ithaca Gun Co; Sturm, Ruger & Co. Their places—Chicopee Falls, Bayonne, North Haven, Rochester, Ilion—all released. It is easy to see how the earth would absorb this characterizing trash, our trash: would carve holes, rust it, dissolve it. Did you ever hear about the country, some student might ask, poking around the remains, the one where there were more guns than people? And those guns made them less safe, not more? 

For now, we have these teachers, among the anvils and table saws, the coal, and labeled tins, turning lathes, tending fires, doing some of the work that can be done. Fred made a mattock from a rifle barrel, an olive branch burned in the handle.


Mary Margaret Alvarado is the author of American Weather, forthcoming from NewLights Press, and Hey Folly (Dos Madres, 2013). Her last essay for The Georgia Review, “Is the First Technological Question the Question of Nipples?,” was shortlisted for 2022’s Best American Essays. Other work has been published by The Boston Review, VQR, Outside, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Poetry Foundation, Cagibi, and elsewhere. Alvarado lives in Colorado with her family. 

Corie J. Cole is a ceramic sculptor, illustrator, and organic gardener. Her craft-centric work—a mixture of naturalistic representation, obsessive detail, and playful satire—orients its content in social and environmental justice, political history, and pop culture. She is the author of The Palingenesis, or: The Pence 15 Club (NewLights Press, 2018). Her work can be found in public and private collections nationally and is currently on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.