Guns, Knives, Bags, Cosplay and Comic-Con

Brad Ricca writes,

If it finally happens, it won’t be the first time.

Though long considered the highest plane of nerd Valhalla for comics fans, the San Diego Comic-Con has frequently been depicted in those same comics as a place of underlying violence. From creepy Archie covers to a Dazzler vs. Mutant Bad Guy issue during Assistant Editor’s Month; an undead uprising in Fanboys vs. Zombies to a Lobo one-shot filled with guns, cigars, and ammo, the Con is often shown to be a potentially dangerous place. Even for G.I. Joe.

But that’s just in the comics.


At Disney World, which draws nearly 53,000 people a day, visitors pass through metal detectors, are sniffed at by dogs, and have their bags searched. At the Super Bowl, fans are also pushed through metal detectors and aren’t allowed to even carry bags. We know what happens at airports.

But at the San Diego Comic-Con, America’s premier pop culture event — which was attended last July by over 170,000 people — you can dress up like a full-sized Transformer, carry black plastic guns, and wear massive backpacks. On the main convention floor, no bags are ever searched and there are no metal detectors. There is some additional security for some of the outer events in certain ballrooms, including occasional metal wands and bag searches, but the main floor remains open. All you do is flash a badge and walk in.

Why is this worth thinking about? Because our minds, hurt and haunted by the names of schools and victims, heroes, and monsters, worry about what could happen next. Someone could bring a knife, or a gun, or fill his backpack with a bomb pressed tight with nails. This person could even dress up like a zombie from The Walking Dead.

And we would never see him coming.

For those of you who have been to Comic-Con, I don’t have to describe it to you. It is not only big, but it is living and writhing, a mass of connected people moving through every available amount of space afforded to it. But it is never in a smooth motion. We wear clunky costumes, have wheelchairs and canes, and push babies dressed like Yoda around in strollers. If something happened, it would be difficult to move quickly. It would be nearly impossible. It would be unimaginable.

In addition to the horde of fans, our favorite celebrities also attend Comic-Con. Every year, fans stand in line to meet the cast of their favorite Marvel movie on a stage on the main floor. There is security, of course, but things are still close-up and personal. Comics pros are even more accessible to the fans who follow them – or disagree with their creative choices. These pros often sit alone in the cramped confines of Artists’ Alley. Because of this closeness, the elaborate costumes, and the general singular nature of it all, Comic-Con is always given at least one major segment on almost every national and local newscast in the country during that July weekend. Like other national events, it carries with it a big, bright spotlight. Hollywood comes here for a reason.

When I asked him about metal detectors, David Glanzer, the longtime Chief Communications and Strategy Officer of Comic-Con International, said: “We have a policy of not talking about issues of security, especially specifics. We work with local and national law enforcement throughout the year and I think we’re one of the few if only conventions that have a police command post in the lobby of the convention center. Additionally, we have a great many staff, and paid security. So much paid security, in fact, that we’ve had to handle a security management company as they hire several different companies from San Diego and as far away as Los Angeles.”

“I know this may not be the answer you were hoping for, so I’ll apologize in advance,” said Glanzer. “We take security very seriously and wouldn’t want to say anything that might jeopardize that.”

Not only do I respect that, but I believe it. Last year at Comic-Con, I saw more armed guards on the floor than any previous year, along with some serious-looking dogs. Some eagle-eyed attendees even saw glimpses of snipers on the rooftops. The Wrap reported that a S.E.A.L. team was active on the floor disguised as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though that practice seems to have been discontinued because too many people wanted their photograph taken with them.

I respect and trust that we are being taken care of. After all, I am just one person and am not a security professional. But I am also a writer, and I have a sinking feeling of where this story might go next.

Because for all the extensive measures that Comic-Con is taking – among probably dozens more we don’t know about – it does not appear to me that visitors without cosplay weapons are subject to not even the most minimal level of screening. They simply walk in. Without metal detectors (handheld or entryway) or bag searches, anyone can walk in with a hidden gun, knife, or bomb.

In 2017, a man was arrested at the Phoenix Comicon who was carrying four guns and wearing body armor. He was apparently going to murder popular Power Rangers actor Jason David Frank, who was appearing at the show. The alleged assailant was also supposedly targeting police officers who were working there. The man was stopped when an acquaintance called in a tip to local police. The armed man wore a Punisher t-shirt.

At New York Comic-Con, C2E2, and now Phoenix Comicon, all visitors must pass through metal detectors. Even the Seafood Expo of America has metal detectors and bag searches. Same with the Padres games across the street. When then-candidate Trump held a rally at the San Diego Convention Center in 2016, there were metal detectors in place, among other levels of security.

It is illegal to carry a gun into the San Diego Convention Center, even with a permit. Yet some people think that law is mutable. On Reddit, some California gun owners brag about carrying a gun“Every. Single. Day.” “Got to operate” says one defiant user. These views do not represent all gun owners. And Reddit probably isn’t remotely true most of the time. But still.

There are other risks, too. Though all cosplay guns at Comic-Con must be cleared at individual prop inspection tables, must be non-functioning, and have orange tips in accordance with state law, a quick Google image search of cosplayers from the past few years shows some people getting around this rule by switching out their props outside the building. The photo looks more professional that way.

These Mandalorians were probably being watched, but is that enough? Is this even legal? California Penal Code 20170, the section that deals with “imitation firearms” such as Airsoft pellet guns, states that “No person may openly display or expose any imitation firearm in a public place.”

Penal Code 417.4 also prohibits “drawing or exhibiting an imitation firearm in a threatening manner.” In our current atmosphere, if a security official saw what looked like a real gun, how might they react? The Washington Post reported that police had killed 86 people with so-called “toy guns” over the past two years. That might not be very fair to Con security, or its fans, but these are real statistics. In the new, sad light of tragedies such as what happened to Tamir Rice, toy guns just aren’t very funny anymore.

For someone who wants to commit a monstrous act on a big stage, Comic-Con is just like a theme park, a stadium, the Boston marathon, an Ariana Grande concert, an Orlando nightclub, an outdoor country concert at the end of the summer, or a normal high school in Florida or Texas. It is big and colorful and full of the best parts of life. It is terrible that the first sentence in this paragraph had to be so long.

But just because we have capes doesn’t mean we are bulletproof. Just because we are nerds doesn’t mean we are expendable.

No one is.

I’ve been going to Con for about ten years now. Less than some of you and more than others. I am very lucky. I now go as a “Professional” and to see that on my badge is among the Top 5 nerd-dreams I had growing up as an X-men fan in Cleveland. It’s the secret headquarters I always knew existed. There is just no place like it, this nexus of the multiverse. But every year it gets to me a little more. When I started writing this, about a year ago, I hoped that someone else would beat me to it. Heidi MacDonald wrote a terrific piece last year called “Staying Safe at Comic-Con.” But there is a difference between “staying safe” and actually “being safe,” isn’t there? I wish these weren’t things we had to think about. I wish we could all cosplay as the Composite Vigilante/Judge Dredd, but the real world is at the door now. The only place for our imagination is how to fix this. This is the Galactus in the convention hall.

When I began researching this, I worried that someone out there might read this as an invitation. Then I realized that the people who think about these things — such as how to bring a weapon into a public area illegally — have been doing so just fine without me, this site, or any other article or argument. This is not speculation. Again, from Reddit:

There are videos on YouTube that show how to tape guns to your body to bring them into any public area, regardless of whether it is a “Gun-Free Zone” or not. There are cheat codes for everything now.

What happens next? Hopefully, the Con will institute some sort of visible metal detection technology, which is something they a) are very aware of and b) seem to be working diligently towards, though there has been no official announcement or timeline. They are dealing with an enormous public event that spills out and overtakes the entire city for a long weekend in the summer. Their task is gargantuan, and they take it very seriously. But the way ahead seems clear: metal detectors and bag searches will require money. Those who make this change will have to endure the complaints of sweaty fans in Sith robes, but these actions don’t require legislation and/or lengthy debate. They just require action. A new Garrett Magnascanner CS 5000 metal detector runs about $3,500. A hand-held wand goes for about $150. Dear Comic-Con: what can we do to help make this happen?

Because we as fans can’t wait for something to happen – or for someone to save us. We can’t wait for more money or politicians or gun control or culture. That’s not how we work. Superman wasn’t created because the world was perfect, but because it needed to be fixed.

As fans, we can demand that the place we patronize with our money, support, and lifelong, heart-on-sleeve fandom, protect us in every possible way, not just the most cost-effective ones. That is our own omega-level power. If we speak up, then comics folks, Hollywood, and Comic-Con itself will join us to enact positive change to protect this homeland we return to every year – or dream of one day finally attending. We must look out for each other. And if you are out there and want to hurt someone or yourself, come join us instead and we will look out for you, too.

We’re comics people. Our job has been the same since the moment we opened our first comic book.

Save the world. Nothing less.

Brad Ricca is the author of the 2018 Edgar Award-nominated Mrs. Sherlock Holmes and the award-winning Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman. He has been a contributor to NPR, C-SPAN2, The AV Club, Narratively, and more. Follow @BradJRicca.

Suicide Hotline: 800-784-2433

Crisis Text Line (U.S. only): Text HELLO to 741741

Youthspace Text Line (across Canada): Text 778-783-0177 from 6 p.m. to midnight daily.

HopeLine: Call or text 919-231-4525 or 1-877-235-4525

SPEAK UP: 866-SPEAK-UP (773-2587)

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

twitter   facebook square   globe