Firearms Resource Center tackles mental health stigma amongst gun owners

Second Amendment

The University of Wyoming College of Law’s Firearms Research Center, in partnership with the Wyoming Department of Health, the Cheyenne Veterans Health Administration and Walk the Talk America, held a conference Nov. 16-17 concerning mental health and firearms. The two-day conference aimed to bring together experts from all disciplines concerning the interconnection between the two worlds, such as lawyers, clinicians, firearm experts and more.

Firearms Research Center Executive Director Ashley Hlebinsky said at the conference that one of the goals of the event is to rediscover the humanity that often gets lost in the midst of gun debates.

“I just want people to realize that, while there are lawyers and clinicians here, so many of us have connections to death by suicide, and many of us I’m sure suffer from mental illness in this room,” Hlebinsky said. “I just think that sometimes we forget that, as we’re talking about this, as we’re talking about policy and theory, that humans who need help are here right now. They’re going to feel like they can be open or feel judged based on the way that we communicate.”

Firearms Research Center Director and College of Law Professor George Mocsary said that the Center, while only having its official launch in January of this year, has already seen success as an organization and held a successful full-day conference in the Fall of 2022 as a soft launch. This year’s two-day conference included representatives from different organizations from across the state and beyond. Mocsary said having them included will help drive the organization’s mission of advancing the conversation surrounding guns.

“Walk the Talk America, the Cheyenne VA and other entities represented during our two-day summit are experts in their respective fields and will bring incredible insight and value to those who attend the conference,” Mocsary said prior to the event.

During the first session of the conference, representatives from many of the organizations involved had the opportunity to speak about the threat of death by suicide in Wyoming and what their respective organizations are trying to do to minimize those deaths. Wyoming Department of Health Injury and Violence Program Prevention Manager Cathy Hoover reminded conference-goers that, not only does Wyoming rank first in the nation for deaths by suicide and firearms making up 75% of those suicides, but also that there are specific populations, such as veterans and white middle-aged men, that the department is targeting to reduce suicides.

“My job is to bring these facts, bring the data, bring all the partners together, look for opportunities for prevention, and really that’s what we’re doing today,” Hoover said at the conference. “We’re talking about safety, and making sure that people are aware of the mental health concerns that are facing their neighbors, their loved ones, while they exercise things like their Second Amendment rights.”

Lauren SinClair of the Cheyenne Veterans Health Administration added that veterans are a population especially at risk of death by suicide, somewhere between 2-12% more likely. She said that the Cheyenne VHA focuses on screening for suicide and building connections with and between veterans to promote wellness within the Wyoming veteran community.

In addition to representatives from statewide organizations, spokespeople from the national organization Walk The Talk America, including its founder Michael Sodini, also spoke at the conference about the ways it’s combating stigmas surrounding mental health in gun owners. This includes inserting information about accessing mental health resources inside boxes of ammunition and spreading its message at events like the yearly SHOT Show in Las Vegas. Sodini said that coming to Wyoming, a state with high gun ownership, is an opportunity to spread that message in the heart of America’s Suicide Belt.

“You get gun owners early help, and let them know it’s okay to go get help, and you demystify the counseling process,” Sodini said prior to the conference. “That’s how you help reduce that suicide number. you create a cultural shift amongst gun owners, to not look at guns and mental health as two things that are mutually exclusive.”

The work required to foster a more interwoven relationship between firearms and mental health doesn’t stop at destigmatizing mental health for gun owners. It also requires destigmatizing gun ownership for mental health professionals. In addition to helping gun owners access mental health resources, Sodini said that his organization aims to educate clinicians on gun culture and ways to better help gun owners. 

Walk The Talk America offers cultural competence courses that they’ve adapted into their session at the Firearms Research Center’s Firearms and Mental Health conference to better educate professionals and give them Continuing Education Unit credits for it.

“The gist of it is basically explaining to clinicians the whole gun culture and what it is,” Sodini said. “I wanted it to speak to everybody. So, there’s nobody that couldn’t take that course. We’ve been pretty successful with that, and I think that’s why it’s so popular. You could be the farthest thing from a gun owner, take the course, and learn a lot.”

To further that goal of educating mental health professionals on gun culture, the conference included sessions covering things like federal firearms law from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Attorney Michael Boyer, safe storage implementation plans, the anatomy of firearms, and even live firing experience at Laramie Rifle Range the second day of the conference.

With special guidance from Range Safety Officers under compliance of NRA guidelines, clinicians, some of whom had never fired a gun before, had the opportunity to see first hand what handling a weapon is like. Participants could fire a variety of both rifles and pistols.

Wyoming is a state that professionals feel has a particular need for more access to mental health resources and a deeper and more engaging conversation between the two seemingly distant worlds of gun ownership and mental health professionals. The conference and the goals of the Firearms Resource Center is just a small stepping stone in the path to making a happier and healthier cowboy community.

“Sustainable, comprehensive, and effective prevention systems can improve the wellbeing and resilience of Wyomingites and, indeed, all Americans,” Mocsary said. “Through our conference and online resources, we hope to educate those who own, use and or sell firearms about safe handling and storage practices, as well as encourage efforts to prevent suicide involving firearms.”

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