The weekend of August 19 to 21 saw two distinct approaches from the geek community to a very real problem affecting the country at large. In the wake of the recent attack in Orlando, the organizers of Flame Con in New York City elected to have a no-weapons policy. Conversely, Wizard World in Rosemont, IL, allowed a gun manufacturer and seller to be a vendor on their floor until public outcry forced them to retract this position at the last possible moment.
Cheryl V. Jackson / Chicago Tribune
DS Arms, a company that prides itself on providing rifle systems to law enforcement, military, and civilians for “over 25 years” was scheduled to be at table 317, right next to Galactic Toys. The equation of guns with entertainment in the city of Chicago, which has been wracked by gun violence, was nothing short of despicable.
Nevertheless, Wizard World vacillated between being deceptive and dismissive about the company’s presence. Originally providing a statement to The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon that DS Arms would “not [be retained] as an exhibitor at the event,” Wizard World did not issue a correction or update when it turned out they would be exhibiting after all. Spurgeon had to learn that elsewhere, “which means Wizard's official statements will not get any meager benefit of the doubt they were given at this site from now on.” Comicosity’s Matt Santori-Griffith took to Twitter, and received an insulting response.
The hashtag #boycottwizardworld was briefly trending on Twitter before the convention got underway. When the convention did finally begin, DS Arms was not presenting as a vendor on the floor at Wizard World. In what some might call “caving to pressure” and others might call “doing the right thing in the most craven manner possible,” DS Arms was not a vendor, though their booth was set up at least 90 minutes into the convention before being taken down.
I reached out to Jerry Milani, the public relations contact for Wizard World who had responded to Santori-Griffith, for a comment on the presence of DS Arms after the controversy had started but before the convention had begun. Two days later, Milani responded with “Hi the exhibitor will not be attending the event. Thanks!” and nothing more. Not only is this flippant and uninformative, it fails to make up for the appalling behavior critics of DS Arms’s presence had to endure for speaking out in the first place. They were the recipients of death threats, insults, and attempted character assassination. Santori-Griffith in particular was singled out as a “male feminist [throwing] a tantrum” in a mud-slinging piece that served no journalistic purpose. Wizard World should answer for these actions, as it is a consequence of their own poor judgment in the first place.
The equivocation that DS Arms would have only been displaying toy guns was cold comfort. The merchandise may have been brightly colored and made of plastic, but it would have been presented by people who would have been more than willing to help people collect real guns intended to kill people. This is not okay. Such a presence should never have been considered, let alone approved. It had the potential to create a hostile environment and traumatic experiences for those attending, which is the opposite of why such events happen in the first place.
I may be considered a hypocrite for singling out guns when blade weapons and other simulacra would still be allowed, but such an accusation misses the point. From 1965 to 2012, guns were responsible for more than half of all homicides every year, sometimes as high as 70%. The idea that swords, knives, katana, or any other weapon could come close to being as threatening is laughable. Besides, Flame Con banned not only guns but blades; projectiles; and “any prop that is heavy, hard, or sharp enough to injure a person.” It encouraged people to “err on the side of caution” and provided alternatives to help cosplayers conform to these standards.
I didn’t hear any complaints about this policy during the weekend of Flame Con; everyone with whom I spoke and all the participants I saw were having a great time. No one felt it was restrictive in any way, or else they considered it a small price to pay for having a safe environment.
One of the appeals of comic book conventions is that they create atmospheres in which otherwise marginalized people are supposed to feel welcome and safe. Freedom of expression is supposed to be encouraged, not just of one’s personal taste, but of one’s identity. As the number of safe environments appears to decrease with increasing frequency, it becomes more and more important to assert that sacrosanct venues and gathering places remain. I applaud Flame Con for recognizing this and acting accordingly.