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Star Wars: Stormtrooper cosplayer arrested

Events like this spark discussion about weapons and cosplay.

Stormtroopers posed outside of the town center in Burlington, VT.
Image credit: Stormtroopers posed outside of the town center in Burlington, VT.

On May the 4th, one of the things that I fear the most happened in Alberta, Canada. A woman dressed as a stormtrooper on a street corner was pushed down by police officers after a pair of 911 calls. According to the CBC, officers ordered her to drop her prop gun, but when she didn’t immediately comply with their orders to get on the ground, she was forced down, sustaining minor injuries. The entire incident was caught on video shot by a passerby, and subsequently went viral online.

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The incident in Alberta wasn’t an isolated one, nor was it the first. In 2013, a Japanese cosplayer was taken into custody after someone operating an anonymous Twitter account threatened to kill people at the same train station. In October 2019 in Silver Lake, California, police responded to a call that there was someone with a gun outside of the library: it turns out to have been a 501st member taking part at a Star Wars Reads Day event.

It’s easy to understand why the public might be wary of someone carrying a fake gun in public. Cosplayers are often inspired by fictional soldiers, warriors, or adventurers, which often deal with some sort of firearm by the very nature of the mediums from which they’re spawned. As cosplayers work to replicate those weapons (which are often based on real-world devices), they come up with weapons that — to the untrained eye — look realistic.

Additionally, cosplay isn’t immune from real-world events. In 2012, a shooter entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado dressed in a black outfit, gas mask, helmet, and vest, and began shooting — some moviegoers initially believed that he was wearing a costume, or enacting a stunt that tied into the movie. A couple of years later in 2016, some conventions banned weapons altogether in the aftermath of the Orlando Nightclub shooting, citing discussions with local officials.

For years, conventions have enacted strict policies regarding weapons: most now require guests to go through metal detectors, and to have any prop weapons undergo an inspection and peace bonding or tagging.

New York Comic Con’s weapons policy is one example of such a policy:

What does NYCC think of weapons and firearms used as cosplay props?

Failure to follow this policy may result in your removal from the convention without refund. This policy applies to any and all venues hosting New York Comic Con events.

Hate symbols are not permitted at NYCC, including as part of cosplay, and NYCC will not allow costumes that contain hate symbols or appropriate the symbolism of hate groups, including, but not limited to, historical/comic-related/satirical costumes that are associated with Nazis.

At the discretion of Security onsite, the following may be allowed:

  • Lightweight Plastic and Metal Shields
  • Lightweight Plastic/PVC Props/Lightsabers
  • Toy guns as long as they do not look like real ones, cannot function or shoot projectiles and have an orange tip on the barrel. The barrel of all prop firearms must be covered with brightly-colored caps.
  • Prop bows will be allowed providing all arrows have soft tips made of foam or cardboard and the bow itself is de-strung. If it is not, our security team will be de-stringing the bow.
  • If any of the above items are deemed unsafe by NYCC Security, they will not be allowed inside the building. If you're bringing, buying or selling something that could maim, damage or cause bodily harm, we're going to take issue. They will only be allowed as long as they are deemed safe and will not cause harm onsite.

Despite the precautions that conventions take, there have been some scary incidents: a man entered Phoenix, Arizona’s Phoenix Comicon in May 2017, armed with four real guns and who allegedly said that he wanted to kill actor Jason David Frank. He was arrested before he carried out his plans, and was recently sentenced to 25 years in the Arizona State Hospital.

I’ve been a member of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costuming group that specializes in the bad guys of the franchise, for more than a decade and a half. In that time, I’ve planned my fair share of events, guided new members as they joined, and helped establish our own internal policies when it comes to how we present ourselves online. Most of the Legion’s members suit up as the Republic, Imperial, or First Order troopers, and in addition to the armor, we often carry the prop weapons that they appear on screen with.

For many years, this wasn’t entirely an issue for our members — people often recognized us for what we were. But over the years, I’ve noticed a growing unease with our presentation in public. In one notable incident, my group of troopers participated in a Kid’s Day Event in Burlington, Vermont. While we’d cleared carrying them ahead of time, an irate parent prompted us to stow them in a nearby police cruiser.

In that time, I’ve worried about what would happen if a bunch of things went wrong for an event: someone sees our members out in front of a movie theater or on the street and doesn’t recognize or understand what our purpose is, and calls the police. Stormtrooper costumes are notoriously hard to see out of, and it can often be difficult to hear someone next to you. The possibility that a cosplayer could be shot because they didn’t hear or misunderstand a police officer’s directions has crossed my mind more than once.

As a result, I’ve begun leaving my blaster stowed in my case for big, public events, in favor of carrying other events that the character I’m portraying might naturally carry. With my Shoretrooper, I put together a replica of the Scarif citadel data cartridge that carried the Death Star plans in Rogue One. For my First Order Stormtrooper, I carry a set of quadnoculars. For my Clone Trooper, I’ve got more options: a backpack, along with a set of electrobinoculars.

Stormtroopers posed outside of the a town center.
A replica of the electrobinoculars that is now being carried around instead of a blaster. | Image credit: Stormtroopers posed outside of the a town center.

Beyond not looking like a firearm, these accessories have an added advantage as well: they’re interactive. I can hand off the macrobinoculars to someone posing for a picture, and they can pretend that they’re looking at a sea of incoming battle droids. With the data cartridge, I often tell my new companion to hold onto it for a moment, but to be careful: it’s got sensitive data on it that can’t fall into Rebel hands. Those little moments add a tiny bit of realism to the encounter, and often make for better photos.

This isn’t to say that replica guns are verboten when it comes to cosplay: they’re often as integral to the appearance of a character. But it’s worth thinking about the context in which they accompany a cosplayer. This recent incident in Alberta has me thinking that it’ll be a long time — if ever — that I’ll be comfortable carrying an E-11 with my Stormtrooper in public again.