When gun rights trump public safety

It wasn't threats that shut down Anita Sarkeesian's USU event -- it was the school's response

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 15, 2014 2:42PM (EDT)

Anita Sarkeesian           (Wikimedia)
Anita Sarkeesian (Wikimedia)

It's not just that Utah State University reported Tuesday that several staff members had received an anonymous threat promising "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if a planned Wednesday event featuring Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian went forward. It's not just that Sarkeesian, along with several women in the gaming and tech world, has been facing death threats and harassment for years now. No, it's about the response. It's about living in a country in which the right to carry around a weapon takes priority over the privilege of being able to stand up in a crowd and not worry about being murdered.

On Tuesday, the University announced that it intended to still hold the event, despite the warning that "feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they've wronged." University spokesman Tim Vitale told the Standard Examiner that the school had consulted with federal, local and state law enforcement and determined it was safe to go on with the appearance, noting that "They determined the threat seems to be consistent with ones [Sarkeesian] has received at other places around the nation. The threat we received is not out of the norm for [her.]" Yep, just your typical, run of the mill, everyday let's-kill-the-feminists thing. Your basic vow of a "Montreal Massacre-style attack," a promise that "I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it… One way or another, I’m going to make sure they die… She is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU.... I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America" letter. As you do. The school promised additional security around the event, and "not allowing large bags or backpacks inside."

What it did not do, however, and the reason Sarkeesian ultimately canceled, was actually commit to stopping people from bringing in guns. As Sarkeesian explained on Twitter late Tuesday, "Forced to cancel my talk at USU after receiving death threats because police wouldn’t take steps to prevent concealed firearms at the event… Requested pat downs or metal detectors after mass shooting threat but because of Utah’s open carry laws police wouldn’t do firearm searches." The University echoed her remarks in a statement that explained, "Sarkeesian asked if weapons will be permitted at the speaking venue. Sarkeesian was informed that, in accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms, if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue."

I'm not going to go into the deep, murky and often truly horrendous GamerGate controversy -- the best explanation of the story thus far comes from Deadspin's Kyle Wagner. What I am going to do is ask, what will it take for explicit threats to be taken seriously, for decisive action to be taken to protect people from gun violence? That's actually a trick question. Because given what we already know from what we've experienced repeatedly in our country and from the persistent, tenacious hold that the gun lobby has on it, the answer is: We already have a body count, and nothing's changing.

You know how long it's been since a man with a gun and a desire to punish women went out and killed a bunch of people near a school? Less than five months. Less than five months since Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured thirteen others. Isla Vista. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Welcome to America.

It's one thing to accept and understand that plenty of reasonable and responsible people own guns and that is their constitutional right. It is another to be so outrageously afraid of legitimate and sane restrictions that you have a situation in which it is entirely permissible to carry a loaded weapon into an event that carries a threat that the people attending it will "die screaming."

It is terrifying enough to face a barrage of harassment and threats and continue to work and speak out. It's harder when what ought to be fairly straightforward safety precautions cannot be taken because of permissive gun laws. This isn't what freedom looks like. This is what the Second Amendment trouncing the First does. And as Sarkeesian explains it, "To be clear: I didn't cancel my USU talk because of terrorist threats, I canceled because I didn’t feel the security measures were adequate." 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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