What Is The Role of Public Firearm Collections In The Current Gun Debate?

Jun 1, 2018

Recently the Cody Firearm Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West hosted a number of museum curators who have major gun collections. The topic of conversation centered on the ethics of firearms and the role of curators in educating the public about guns. 

Steve Sanetti, president of The National Shooting Sports Foundation, is not in charge of any public collections but he thinks museums are traditionally a place where emotions are left at the door and learning is more based on fact.

“I think the role of museums is badly needed in the current [gun] debate to sort of tone down the rhetoric let people take a breather and let’s talk about these very emotional issues factually and see if people can have a better understanding of both sides of the debate,” said Sanetti.  

But it’s not so easy for actual curators of firearm museums. Ashley Hlebinsky, the curator of the Cody Firearm Museum, said people like her are becoming more popular with the media.

“We always say we don't take a political stance on this. This is just how we see the trends throughout all of firearms history,” she said.

The decision of not taking a political stance is common among most representatives of firearm collections. But some are starting to think, it might be time to take a bigger role in the conversation. For Hlebinsky it’s about giving the public the facts but she said it’s not up to her what they do with them.

“We see ourselves as educators of history that can talk from a more informed place and speak from a place of understanding, from the history perspective to even the function perspective of the firearm to make their own conclusion,” said Hlebinsky.

Guns have become so polarized in the recent years that universities are hesitant to get into discussions about guns.

“I thought this is crazy why do I belong to a school of design and we can't discuss firearms,” said Ben Nicholson, a professor of architecture and design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. About four years ago, he decided he wanted to teach a class on the history of the design of guns but he got a lot of pushback.

“The administrators who were unable to see anything other than a killing instrument, unable to see that the firearms industry is central to the American story of manufacturing,” said Nicholson. 

Finally, after a lot of convincing, he managed to get a class approved. He’s been teaching it for three years now and he said he has one simple goal.

“A student finishing the class can say I know about guns. I may have never shot them but I’m in a position to make a set of thoughts that are well balanced,” he said. 

But for now, Nicholson sees museums and public collections as another avenue of education. To understand it more fully and to get rid of the distrust of guns just based on their appearances. And Sanetti said it’s as simple as educating the public on why a gun looks and shoots a certain way. For example, an AR 15.

That's the biggest misconception, I think.  People think that gun itself is bad because it looks bad. Now true it has been used in a number of these highly publicized horrible shootings,” he said. 

Ashley Hlebinsky said this is the brown vs black phenomenon. People see wooden guns as archives of history but black ones as weapons of killing.

“There was a movement to work with synthetic materials, like nylon and polymers. It was to create a lighter firearm, something that was easier to wield in the battlefield so it was just sort of the next step in developing firearm technology,” she said.  

But in general, they still function the same. Hlebinsky said this is exactly the kind of role that curators can play in any discussion. If someone still doesn't support firearms, that’s fine. But at least they have more knowledge on how it has become the gun it is today. And she said that is truly the role of firearm collections and museums.