Firearms Museum Focuses On Gun Safety, History And Culture

19 hours ago

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Wyoming is one of the largest gun collections in the world: The Cody Firearms Museum. But it's recently gotten a makeover, moving away away from being a monument to guns and toward being an educational space on gun safety, history and culture.

The museum is located at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West alongside four other museums and near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park. So often, people just happen upon it. That was the case for Kim Cato and her family, visiting from Idaho.

"We were not planning to go in here," Cato said.

Cato said that's because of her own previous experience with the museum.

"I was here as a child and my dad dragged me through it and it was just rows and rows of guns and it was just not exciting."

But now, the recently renovated museum seemed more intriguing. So Cato and her husband Kevin, their 12-year-old son, Tyson, and 15-year-old daughter, Jillian, took a tour with Ashley Hlebinsky, the curator.

People and technology

"So we're actually going to start right here," said Hlebinsky, as she led the family to the mission statement plastered in big letters on a wall at the entrance of the museum. "A lot of times when you talk about firearms history, you think about the history of technology, but it's also a history of people, and with that history of people it can be good, bad and indifferent."

In an effort to address the good, the bad, and the indifferent, the first gallery is focused on basic firearm safety, especially where kids are involved. There's an interactive table and the first thing you see, "Do you know what to do if they [children] are out in the real world and they encounter a real firearm?"

We had an experience where a child climbed over a fence and handed my son a gun. - Kim Cato, Cody Firearms Museum visitor

Under the question, a set of rules are mounted at a height designed to be read by children. They include: Stop. Don't touch the firearm. Get an adult or a law enforcement officer. Cato found these guidelines really helpful.

"We had an experience where a child climbed over a fence and handed my son a gun," Cato said. "And didn't you try to shoot it?"

"No, I didn't even touch it," replied Tyson.

Cato was surprised because she had heard a different story when it happened a couple of years ago. It turned out some of the details were murky. Nothing bad happened but it was scary for the family.

"Tyson, are you aware of these rules now?" Cato asked.

Rather than being a monument to guns, the Cody Firearms Museum explores the history of guns as well as gun safety and the cost of war.
Kamila Kudelska / Wyoming Public Radio

Tyson replied in affirmative. This is the kind of conversation the museum is trying to foster. Even if visitors walk in with nearly no idea about firearms, the museum's administrators hope that at least they can learn how to handle hard situations that firearms may present.

Next, Hlebinsky took the Catos to the Cost of War exhibit.

"As we're walking into this gallery, really the first thing you encounter is this big graphic," Hlebinsky said. "And some of the images you see when you walk into the gallery are the gravestones at the Arlington Cemetery and children affected by war."

The Catos also learned about Audie Murphy, the World War II veteran and actor who broke a taboo of the time by talking about his experience with what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. And the family learned that during the Civil War, some arms were produced by enslaved people.

Multiple viewpoints

The renovation tries to address the diverse audiences expected to visit. Hlebinsky said the museum offers different lenses through which people can learn about firearms, such as shooting sports, the technological evolution of firearms, and military history.

Some of the Cody Firearms Museum exhibits focus on the design and mechanics of guns.
Kamila Kudelska / Wyoming Public Radio

Museum leaders say they also don't want to ignore the current conversations around the misuse of firearms, specifically in mass shootings. The Catos ended their tour in front of a big black and white mural, produced by the artist known as JR in partnership with Time Magazine.

Fifteen-year-old Jillian Cato described the mural this way: "It's a big group of people. Many of them have signs. It seems to be a huge debate. One side is anti-gun and the other side is pro-guns rights."

The mural is derived from a video featuring images of Americans on all sides of the debate. Hlebinsky said as a museum curator, she can't tell people what they should think about firearms. But she hopes the information spurs conversations among visitors.

As the Cato family looked at the mural, the father, Kevin said they aren't really gun enthusiasts.

"I'm not into killing things. There's no reason to have a gun unless you're going to try to kill something," he said. "I have really enjoyed this, though, and I'm going to do more research on the history of guns and how they are going to affect warfare."

That's the goal of the new Cody Firearms Museum. Not to win people over as gun enthusiasts, but to help them learn and think about gun culture.

Copyright 2019 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.


The members of Shine MSD are on a mission. MSD stands for Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died in a mass shooting. Shine MSD is a group of Parkland students and parents who are promoting healing through the arts. As World Cafe's Talia Schlanger reports, they're getting help from a special trumpet called the Instrument of Hope.

TALIA SCHLANGER, BYLINE: You know what a trumpet sounds like. And you probably know what one looks like, too - shiny brass.

JOSH LANDRESS: We lacquered it in black. The shiny areas that you see are the polished brass and then clear lacquered over that. We wanted it to really stand out in kind of pop so you could see - hey, these are the parts - are actual bullets...

SCHLANGER: Josh Landress made it.

LANDRESS: ...Bullets that were shot and fired out of a gun cut up and pieced together. And this is the lead pipe...

SCHLANGER: Landress is pointing to the long, straight part of the instrument that comes out of the mouthpiece. Picture a bunch of empty bullet casings lined up end-to-end leading towards the bell where the sound comes out.


SCHLANGER: And you've drilled a hole through (inaudible)...

LANDRESS: Yeah. It's drilled all the way out...

SCHLANGER: ...So that the air goes in?

LANDRESS: ...So that the air can go through. And it makes it a playable instrument.

As you can see, it's just a spinning piece of brass. So what I'm going to do now is I'm just going to cut some of the metal.

SCHLANGER: As you can imagine, making a trumpet out of bullets was complicated...

LANDRESS: So you can see the brass kind of flying off of it...

SCHLANGER: ...Which is why Josh was a little hesitant when he got a call from a guy named Matt McKay from an advertising and PR company called Publicis.

MATT MCKAY: That is spelled P-U-B-L-I-C-I-S.

SCHLANGER: McKay is the executive creative director at Publicis Worldwide. He heard about the Shine students from Parkland and offered to donate his time to help spread their message.

MCKAY: The message being, don't forget about these horrific events that happen - something happens. The news is all over it for days and days and days. And then all of a sudden it's just back to the same, old thing. And there's a small amount of people that get impacted by these things that can't go back to the same, old thing.

SCHLANGER: Two of the Parkland students who formed Shine are Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Pena. Garrity says that they were in drama class on the day of the shooting.

SAWYER GARRITY: The day right after, a lot of us went to Andrea's house. And we just like...


GARRITY: And we just, like, painted. And we don't really talk much. We're just, like, painting. And like, I think that was kind of the first realization of art being therapeutic.

PENA: Yeah.

GARRITY: ...Because that was the first thing we did. We were listening to, like, "Glee" music and, like, playing random playlists and just, like, painting. And that made us feel even just a little bit better.

SCHLANGER: That weekend, Garrity and Pena started writing a song together called "Shine."

GARRITY: I know Andrea and I - we both turn to music. It's something we both turn to when we're feeling any emotion. And I think what happened at our school - we were just, like, feeling so many emotions that we didn't know how to deal with. And so we just kind of poured it all into the song. And if we didn't do it when we did it, we didn't write that song right then and there when we were feeling everything, the song wouldn't have been as genuine and as raw and as real as it is today.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) You - you through my city away. You tore down the walls and opened all the gates.

SCHLANGER: That's Pena and Garrity singing. They were able to record the song with their classmates at a professional studio in Florida thanks to a producer who donated his time and equipment.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) We're not going to let you in. We're putting up a fight. You may have brought the dark. But, together, we will shine the light. And whoa. We will be something special. Whoa. We're going to shine.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Shine.

SCHLANGER: Then their parents got involved. And they formed the nonprofit organization named for the song.

GARRITY: It's really hard because what Shine's doing is we're advocating for healing through the arts...

SCHLANGER: Sawyer Garrity.

GARRITY: ...Like, healing from trauma and stuff when we still haven't healed from that. And we're still learning how to deal with that. And I have people coming who say things to me like, oh, you guys are what we want to look to when we want to see how to heal through trauma. But I guess Shine is kind of looked at as, like, hopeful and stuff. But it's hard to stay hopeful all the time, especially when you go through, like, what you go through.

SCHLANGER: The Shine students travel the country when they can, spreading awareness by performing and sharing their story. And, at the same time, the trumpet they inspired, the instrument of hope, is on its own tour. It made it into the hands of David Streim, who plays trumpet in singer-songwriter Amos Lee's band.

DAVID STREIM: The responsibility and the honor of playing something like this - it's a pretty incredible feeling just holding it.


SCHLANGER: The trumpet recently made its debut on Broadway.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Oklahoma!" is honored to feature this Instrument of Hope today as one of the stops on his tour across the country.


SCHLANGER: And it wound up in the hands of Matt Cappy, who's played with everybody from Tony Bennett to the late Aretha Franklin to The Roots.


MATT CAPPY: I present to you the Instrument of Hope.


SCHLANGER: Every once in a while, the Instrument of Hope returns to its maker, Josh Landress. and on one of those occasions, the Shine kids were also in New York and got a chance to play it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I can't do it.

LANDRESS: Don't give up.

SCHLANGER: The visit meant a lot to Landress.

LANDRESS: They were laughing and having fun. To see that happiness come from them from a rough situation was really moving and kind of made me a little choked up. And to also hear their stories, it's so powerful. I couldn't imagine.

SCHLANGER: And maybe that's why they call it the Instrument of Hope. For NPR News, I'm Talia Schlanger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.