WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: UW Firearms Research Center Appoints Executive Director

Ashley Hlebinsky, a nationally recognized firearms historian, is the new center’s inaugural leader

Ashley Hlebinsky, 34, is the first executive director of the University of Wyoming College of Law’s Firearms Research Center. At the time of this 2019 photograph, Hlebinsky was the Curator and Project Director for the Cody Firearms Museum, part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. (Courtesy photo from Ashley Hlebinsky)

By K.L. McQuaid

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Ashley Hlebinsky didn’t have much exposure to guns while growing up in Pittsburgh.

She wanted to be a surgeon, until a medical tour of Gettysburg’s Civil War battlefield showed her how weapons technology impacted medical treatments.

Hlebinsky became hooked. She changed her major from pre-med to history at the University of Delaware and set out to learn everything she could about the history of firearms.

Internships in Pittsburgh and at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and a National Rifle Association First Steps course later, and Hlebinsky found herself in Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and its on-site firearms museum.

She began work while in graduate school as a research fellow, then progressed quickly to assistant curator. In 2015, Hlebinsky was named the Robert W. Woodruff Curator and Project Director at the Cody Firearms Museum – one of the nation’s largest firearms museums with a collection of some 10,000 artifacts that is part of the larger Buffalo Bill Center.

She was 25.

“Once I decided on a career path, I got totally on board,” Hlebinsky said.

Over much of the next decade, Hlebinsky expanded educational programs at the museum, added to its collection, invited additional scholarly interpretation and oversaw a $12 million renovation.

Hlbeinsky’s singular focus and hard work have paid off: Last month, she was named the inaugural executive director of the University of Wyoming College of Law’s new Firearms Research Center.

“There’s no one better than Ashley for the position of executive director – no one,” said George Mocsary, who conceived of the research center over four years ago and is now its director. “Modern firearms conversation centers around the law and history. I’m a law professor, and Ashley knows the history. Her bona fides are excellent, and her knowledge is unparalleled.”

Mocsary isn’t alone in recognizing Hlebinsky’s passion and knowledge base.

“From the moment she walked in, she was totally engaged,” said Michael Kraus, curator at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh, where Hlebinsky served as an intern. “She learns very quickly and takes things under her control.”

“Ashley’s a very driven person,” said Lynn Rodgers, who worked at the Buffalo Bill Center as its chief financial officer during Hlebinsky’s tenure. “She was very good at networking and building support for the museum and relationships with people.”

Ashley Hlebinsky serves on the board of Walk The Talk America, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the gap between firearms and mental health, and is an expert witness in gun-related legal cases. (Photo by Peter Vander Stoep, courtesy of Ashley Hlebinsky)

From Cody’s renovation to UW

While in Cody, Hlebinsky quickly learned the scope and intricate details involved in a museum renovation. Although a full-scale restoration and modernization had been in the works before she arrived, it was left to Hlebinsky to carry out the work, navigating among donors, contractors, the public and other stakeholders.

The makeover at the two-story, 40,000-square-foot museum debuted in July 2019. In addition to its collection of over 7,000 guns – Winchester Repeating Arms kicked off the museum in 1975 when it loaned the Buffalo Bill Center some 4,000 weapons and artifacts – the revamped museum features exhibits on firearm safety, history and education.

“To be proper stewards, we had to modernize,” Hlebinsky said. “We had 200,000 visitors a year coming to the Buffalo Bill Center at the time just before the renovation, and half of them we discovered didn’t know anything about guns.”  

Hlebinsky said visitors were often shocked to learn that the Ford Motor Co., the maker of Louisville Slugger baseball bats and even clothier Abercrombie & Fitch all had ties to gun manufacturing in years past.

For her part, Hlebinsky, now 34, said she doesn’t believe being a woman in the male-dominated firearms world influenced people’s perceptions of her.

“I think being a woman may actually have even helped open a few doors,” she said. “But at the same time, I knew that being a woman, if I didn’t know what I was talking about, those doors would slam shut twice as hard.”

Hlebinsky officially left her position as curator in Cody in 2020, but stayed on as a consultant during the museum’s leadership transition.

Over the next two-plus years, Hlebinsky and her husband, Mark Hanish, formed a consulting firm, The Gun Code LLC. She also joined the board of a nonprofit that aims to bridge the gap between firearms and mental health called Walk The Talk America; authored several articles in national magazines; lectured on gun issues; appeared on The Outdoor Channel and the Discovery Channel; and established herself as an expert witness in gun-related legal cases.

It was in October of 2020 that Hlebinsky first met UW’s Mocsary to brainstorm ideas for what a university firearms research center might encompass. The center received formal approval in 2022; Hlebinsky joined in January of this year, as a consultant, before being named executive director in September.

Since then, she and Mocsary have formed a partnership with the Wyoming Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to further suicide prevention initiatives.  In 2021, the state recorded 31.5 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 residents, double the national average, according to the health department. Three quarters of those deaths involved firearms.

On Nov. 16 and 17, the center is hosting a free, open-to-the-public symposium entitled “Firearms and Mental Health: Fostering Understanding, Safety and Support.” It will bring together mental health practitioners, firearms experts, academics, lawyers and community leaders to discuss safe firearms storage and suicide awareness and prevention. It will also feature gun safety training and a town hall meeting on the UW campus.

Hlebinsky also has been busy creating a website and a strategic plan, fundraising and drilling into the details of the center’s mission.

“There’s a lack of scholarship around firearms that needs to be present, especially today,” Hlebinsky said. “One of my big goals for the center is to create a national symposium for firearm experts, because there’s currently no such program in the U.S.”

She hopes to broaden public education around guns, engage in community outreach and be a resource for academic research. At least initially, the UW research center intends to aggregate scholarly material from around the country involving firearms, but plans are in the works to hire research associates and fellows in Laramie, Hlebinsky said.

Beginning this semester, Mocsary is teaching a course on Second Amendment law and history, the first of what may be many classes centered on firearms.

Perhaps ironically, given her experience in Cody, Hlebinsky and Mocsary agree the research center doesn’t need a permanent home – just yet.

Said Hlebinsky: “Rather than bricks and mortar, what I’d like is if we could establish a cross-disciplinary approach, where we’re a national leader on the topic and can partner with other universities on research.”

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