Gun owners are routinely the victims of gun laws that impact gun ownership; however, private museums often also suffer the same fate, according to Cody Firearms Museum Curator Emerita and Senior Firearms Scholar Ashley Hlebinsky and Associate Curator Danny Michael.
In a talk presented at the Gun Rights Policy Conference held virtually Sept. 19 and 20, Hlebinsky and Michael discussed the little known impact that federal laws, as well as state and local gun restrictions have on privately owned museums housing firearms. While federally owned museums like the Smithsonian can often circumvent existing regulations to bring history to its visitors, non-profit museums like The Cody Firearms Museum must jump through similar hoops as everyday citizens to procure historical items for preservation and display.
"As a non-government museum, we are actually bound by all gun laws -- whether that's federal, state, or local," Hlebinsky explained.
Museums like the Cody Firearms Museum are essential to preserving American history and educating those who may have never encountered a gun outside of TV, movies, or video games. For many who enter the museum, curiosity leads to education.
"The interesting thing about the museum world is that we can reach so many different kinds of people," Hlebinsky noted. "About half of our audience really hasn't had a lot of experience with firearms, so when we rebuilt the museum, we wanted to do it in a way that was very inviting no matter how you felt about guns." Despite presenting an educational approach to the history of firearms, with no partisanship, Michael says the museum faces challenges other museums do not.
"We talk to art museums, history museums, and natural science museums. A lot of these museums will do controversial exhibits -- that could be a really edgy art exhibition or something else like that -- that will get a lot of press asking should they have done this exhibit, but they've been allowed to do this," elaborated Michael. "It's always whether they should or shouldn't, it's never whether they could or could not. For us, it's really a question of we cannot in a number of states."
Michael went on to say that the Cody Firearms Museum did a "mental exercise" to dig deeper into how gun laws impact historical exhibits. In this faux scenario, the crew evaluated what would happen if they were to load up the entire museum and take it on the road across all 50 states-- a roaming, firearms exhibit of sorts. As they delved into gun laws, state-to-state, they learned many pieces in the collection simply wouldn't make the cut. Michael said the exhibition would see a "pretty extensive" change to be state compliant in some cases. Both historians said it's not always the states you'd expect either. Southern states commonly associated with pro-gun politics aren't free from gun laws that impact historical preservation. Hlebinsky pointed to Alabama as an example. Due to unclear verbiage in the state's regulations, cane guns as a part of an exhibit would be iffy, eliminating those pieces from the museum's inventory.
Lawmakers often have no idea that gun regulations like these hamper museums; further, employees at other private museums may not be in the know as well. Exhibits, especially smaller ones without a full-time employee dedicated to reviewing existing laws and interfacing with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, run the risk of getting into significant legal trouble with the items they show.
"One of the biggest categories of NFA offenders in the country are museum collections," Michael said. "(Museum professionals) just don't realize they might have a contraband item sitting in storage right now."
Understanding the importance of historical preservation while also preventing legislation that directly impacts a museum's ability to do what they do best, educate, is the key to fixing the issue, says Hlebinsky.
"What we're trying to do is raise awareness that this is a problem for museums across the country. Especially as people propose gun legislation, it impacts museums." Hlebinsky said. "It's one of those unintended consequences of the legal system. We just want people to be aware of it."
She concluded, "We would like people to just come and hang out at the museum and learn everything they can about firearms history."
For more information about the Cody Firearms Museum, visit them on the web here: Cody Firearms Museum. If you missed GRPC in September, you can watch Hlebinsky and Michael's talk below.