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Firearms museum takes aim at understanding history, culture of guns


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Wyoming is the nation's least populous state, but it ranks near the top in per capita gun ownership. It's also home to the nation's most comprehensive collection of historical firearms.

Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to the renovated Firearms Museum in Cody.

This story is part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: There's the old and strange.

Ashley Hlebinsky: That is called the duck's foot pistol, but it's basically -- it's a volley gun.

Jeffrey Brown: A volley gun?

Ashley Hlebinsky: Yes. So it would all fire at once.

Jeffrey Brown: The new and controversial:

Ashley Hlebinsky: An assault rifle has a definable term.

Jeffrey Brown: And some 7,000 firearms of all kinds in between.

The Cody Firearms Museum was created in the 1970s, mostly with gun enthusiasts in mind.

Ashley Hlebinsky: This looks at the post-World War II period.

Jeffrey Brown: But after a brand-new $12 million renovation, says curator Ashley Hlebinsky, it can now tell a broader and necessary story.

Ashley Hlebinsky: Firearms have been integral to understanding really history, culture, technology and society for centuries. And so, having a Firearms Museum is really a way that you can use those artifacts as a vehicle to talk about other topics.

Jeffrey Brown: That includes guns as weapons of war, for sports and hunting, as innovative technology.

Ashley Hlebinsky: Henry Ford visited Winchester right before he built his Highland Park factory in Detroit, and he took what he learned at Winchester and applied that to the assembly line that he's become famous for. But you don't necessarily hear that firearms part of the story. And that's gotten lost, definitely.

Jeffrey Brown: Housed in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the firearms collection is one of five museums of art and history, including the story of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, the legendary soldier and hunter turned showman, who in 1896 helped establish this small town in Northwest Wyoming, a deeply conservative state, where guns have always been part of life.

The Buffalo Bill Center asks visitors to check visible firearms.

Alan Simpson: I don't think there's a guy in this community or a family in this community that doesn't have a gun in their home.

Jeffrey Brown: That includes former Senator Alan Simpson, who grew up and, now 88, still lives in Cody.

Alan Simpson: There would be no history in America without the gun. I mean, you can gasp, and choke, and fall over on your head if you want to with that statement I just made.

But, I mean, without a gun, the pioneers would have had nothing but an axe, and fighting off the elements and indigenous people. All of that is real. All of it -- you can't rewrite history.

Jeffrey Brown: But I could imagine people saying, OK, that's all true, but a museum to celebrate guns?

Alan Simpson: We don't sell it. We tell the history. We're not in the celebratory thing down here, where we have a big sign, come on in and cherish guns with us. That's bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED). This is the history of America, which is guns.

April Jones: I was afraid that it was going to glorify firearms.

Jeffrey Brown: Artist April Jones, who lives and works nearby, is a much newer resident of Cody, one who came with different politics and from a very different place, the San Francisco Bay Area.

April Jones: A lot of my friends back there would be quite offended that there was a museum about guns.

Jeffrey Brown: But Jones is impressed with the museum's approach.

April Jones: I think that's a nice balance to understand that, OK, you have got your sports shooters on the one hand that are competing in Olympic events for target shooting and kind of stuff, but then you have got people who are really living in turmoil and destruction because of firearms, too.

And I think that's more the conversation that our country should be having, is, it's a tool. In what cases can it be used properly? And how can we stop it from being used improperly?

Jeffrey Brown: There's no denying the fascination many have with guns. Visitors from all over the world, here from the Netherlands, come to try them out at the nearby Cody Firearms Experience.

General manager Paul Brock knows it's the movies that often drive people his way.

Paul Brock: When people say, I don't know what to shoot, we will say, OK, well, let's do -- what do you want, Johnny Depp, John Wayne or John Wick?

Jeffrey Brown: We got to try all three, a 1790s Indian trade musket, an 1873 Colt single-action revolver, and a modern AR-15.

Paul Brock: The oldest firearm, you did the best shooting with.

So, nice job.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm an old-fashioned guy, maybe.


Paul Brock: Yes, there you go.

Jeffrey Brown: The only shooting at the Cody Firearms Museum is with simulators to teach safety and illustrate different gun mechanisms.

Here, they aim for something else, such as getting definitions right. It says, "These terms are used frequently, but rarely in the correct ways."

Ashley Hlebinsky: Correct.

Jeffrey Brown: As in, just what is meant by an assault weapon?

Ashley Hlebinsky: If you are trying to create legislation for or against firearms, or whether you're trying to regulate these things, you have to be precise in the wording of that legislation.

So it's important to have the historical foundation of what those words mean in order to actually make sure you're talking about the right thing that you're trying to do in politics.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also this, a large mural originally made for the cover of "TIME" magazine last year showing several hundred people across the great American gun divide.

And not every museum visitor loves it.

Ashley Hlebinsky: We have had a couple of people on all sides say, this is really divisive. Why would you put this up?

Jeffrey Brown: And what do you say to them?

Ashley Hlebinsky: It's a very divisive debate. And this actually represents equal footing.

And it's OK to love it. It's OK to hate it. We want to encourage people to think really long and hard about firearms to make their own conclusions about firearms. And this is an opportunity in the museum to feel something.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Cody, Wyoming, Firearms Museum.

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