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Executive director of the new UW Firearms Research Center says they want to focus on having open dialogues

Firearms Research Center

This year, the University of Wyoming College of Law launched the Firearms Research Center. The center hopes to establish more voices in Second Amendment discussions and will act as a reliable, nonpartisan resource for firearms related information. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska spoke with co-founder and executive director of the center Ashley Hlebinsky on why the center is important to her personally.

Ashley Hlebinsky: This is something, for me, that I wanted to see for a really long time. I started studying firearms in college. Obviously, I studied them in graduate school, but it was really difficult to study them in a system where there were no majors for it. And there were really not a lot of specialists in it. So you kind of had to make your own path through independent studies.

I was fortunate that I could do that at the University of Delaware, but it becomes very difficult for people and it doesn't necessarily lend itself to people wanting to go study something that I think is really important to understand, especially in today's culture. And so it's something I'd wanted to see. And George [Macsary] already got the ball rolling.

I think it's very important to be able to contribute to current scholarship because that scholarship has been traditionally lacking, but then to also encourage new scholarship. And then the other component of the Research Center, which I'm incredibly excited about -- what you don't always see in academic research centers is a community outreach component. So finding a way to bring firearms into this discussion on multiple different levels.

Kamila Kudelska: So what type of discussions do you all want to be part of?

AH: George's specialty is in Second Amendment law. So he's currently teaching a course on firearms in the Second Amendment law class. There is a lot of discussion around the history of the Second Amendment and the application of those laws.

We are wanting to look into firearms history and the background in technology -- that becomes a part of my focus. And then really just any area that we can explore. I mean, we've talked to people with forensics backgrounds, we've talked to people from a public health perspective, education perspective, just to kind of see all the different areas that we could go and see if there's a way that we can connect them not just in the University of Wyoming, but then also around the country.

KK: Obviously, today's political climate around firearms is not great. What is your role in today's society on firearms?

AH: I think one of our biggest goals is to diversify the conversation. Because there aren't a lot of people that are studying firearms within the university structure. There are some people out there, and a lot of times, they're siloed. They don't even know that the other exists. So one of the things we're trying to do is reach out to those different universities and provide those scholars that are already doing the work a platform in order to kind of have discussion, provide the research.

But then we're also trying to get a better dialogue going on across the board. I think a lot of times when you see different groups it's almost like an echo chamber. It's everyone having the exact same opinion in the room, and we want to see more voices. More voices that may be across the spectrum, will allow gun owners to have a voice in some forums where they may not, and allow scholars to have a voice where they may not within that community.

We don't have a political agenda one way or the other. But one of the things that I always see that makes me really disappointed is the lack of knowledge of what's being done already. And then finding the holes in that scholarship and hopefully filling them and then allowing that scholarship to be used, whether it's in actual litigation, but then also as a vehicle for the media to ask questions and the public as well.

KK: A part of the center's goal is to be reaching out to the community. September's suicide awareness month and y'all just came out with a page on suicide awareness in relation to firearms. So why is that something you decided to do?

AH: When we were looking at the first steps of community outreach, because there's so many different kinds of arenas that we want to tackle with that, in terms of firearm safety, possibly hunters therapy… but for us, one of the most important dialogues that goes on today, but it doesn't necessarily get a lot of focus, is the fact that more than two thirds of firearms deaths in the U.S. are suicide by firearm. The state of Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide in the country. So we felt like this was a really important community initiative to be done within the state, but then it also needs to be a part of the national conversation. And so we reached out with the Wyoming Department of Health and the Office of Veterans Affairs, and we started putting together brainstorming how we can, especially, work in the state of Wyoming to improve and create a suicide prevention initiative. And so we launched the website, but then we also have a conference coming up on November 16 and 17, called ‘Firearms and Mental Health: Fostering Understanding Safety and Support.’ And one of the components of that, and I think that's one of the more practical sides of the initiative, is the discussion of safe storage, but specifically out of home safe storage.

KK: So that's something that we hear about, how are you guys trying to do it differently?

AH: So it's a lot more complicated than that in terms of out of home storage. Out of home storage is essentially, if you are a person in a time of crisis, you can take your firearms to, say, a gun shop and temporarily relieve yourself of custody to that gun shop. And then when you are doing better, that gun shop can return your firearms to you. However, there's a lot of liability that can come on the end of the gun shop owner. So there are projects around the country called the Gun Shop Project in different regions. So one of the things that we're creating specially for this conference is we're doing continuing legal credit on the discussion of what is the liability. Because if gun shop owners are not sure of what the liability is, then they may be hesitant to participate in a project like that.

We're actually going to have an ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) lawyer at our conference because they recently just penned a paper on that specific topic. So we're trying to help provide real legal clarity out of them. Storage is a great possibility. But if people are afraid to do it, understandably so because of the liability, then it really is a moot point.

Then the other side of that is we're working with Walk the Talk America. I'm on the board of Walk the Talk America. It is a firearms and mental health organization that works with the gun community to reduce the stigma of mental health, but then also works with the mental health profession to provide cultural competency. Because there's a lot of issues within the mental health profession, not understanding gun owners, not understanding the nuance of gun ownership, when someone is a danger to themselves, when their firearms are in the home and when they're not. And so we're also working with them to create a focus towards clinicians in order to understand firearms and behavioral health with firearms. So that, as we kind of look towards a larger discussion, we have more mental health practitioners who are aware of the nuances in gun ownership so that they can better get their patients help.

KK: So you're the executive director of the Center. Why was that personally important for you to do and I know that suicide awareness and stuff like that is a big part for you, because that's important for you. So if you can talk a little bit about that?

AH: This suicide prevention initiative is also really important to me. I've been very public about my own mental health struggles. When I first went public with my bipolar two and my PTSD diagnoses on social media within the gun community, I was kind of overwhelmed at the number of people who had messaged me saying that they had people I've known for years, that they also either suffered from bipolar or another mental illness, and that they were too afraid to talk about it because they thought it would jeopardize their jobs. They thought it would jeopardize their gun ownership. I guess I just never realized, maybe I should have realized it, before I announced it. But you know how scared people were to talk about it and how scared people were to get help. And I see that kind of across the board, even with my own personal journey on that. And I want people to be able to feel like they have an outlet. Because if people are afraid to talk or they feel like they have no options, I mean, that doesn't help. That's not going to reduce the number of deaths by suicide in this country. And so for me, it was very important and one of the things that I drove really strongly from the beginning. Because I think it is something that we can impact as long as we've got dialogue.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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